The geometry, if you will, of a terrific big band recording is such that the three major elements—the players, the arrangements, and the performance—balance in every regard. Grooveyard from the John La Barbera Big Band is such an offering. The album features ten masterfully selected, arranged, and performed selections, each containing outstanding section, solo, and ensemble playing.
Wes Montgomery's "Grooveyard" launches a hip, swinging first course in which tenor man Pat La Barbera and guitarist Brandon Coleman provide fine solos. The upbeat momentum continues with the serendipitous melody and Chick Corea-like feel of "My New Summer Samba." Dave Brubeck's salute to his spouse, the lovely waltz "Iola," is a showcase for pianist Renee Rosnes (who shines here and throughout the session). Long a Mancini acolyte, La Barbera's "Thanks Hank" is a slick hat-tip to Henry Mancini and that Master's stylings. Close your eyes and you are at a '50s smoke-filled "Mother's."
La Barbera, who earned his "made man" status writing extensively for the Buddy Rich Band, possesses a superb arranging style in which there is a surprise around every corner. He shrewdly presents material to these New York A-Listers which challenges and encourages them, and they respond with vigor. Unlike his Rich material which framed the firebrand, these arrangements offer extensive use of woodwind colorings and slick orchestration doublings. One example among many is the Latin "Choro Para Thiago" in which clarinetists Juan Ruiz and Sam Sadigursky present melodic joy, even offering two sly Dizzy Gillespie tune nods—"And Then She" and Salt Peanuts."
In addition to the fine woodwind and brass section playing, lead trumpeter John Chudoba and lead trombonist Ryan Keberle forge things ahead. The outstanding rhythm section of Rosnes, Rufus Reid, and brother Joe La Barbera provides dynamic energy throughout. A magnanimous leader, La Barbera offers extensive opportunities for soloists to shine. Trumpeter Brandon Lee does just that on La Barbera's "Messenger"-like original, "K's Delight." "Mandatory Blues" is a "Tom Cat" creeper, offering great solos from Steve Wilson and Clay Jenkins. Elvin Jones "Keiko's Birthday March" is a flat-out burner which showcases drummer Joe La Barbera's paradiddling, with sibling Pat parrying away furiously and delivering a perfectly apropos closer.
"Grooveyard" is a supremely inviting and enthusiastic romp. It is well-balanced in every way and possesses subtleties which surprise, intrigue, and encourage multiple aural visits.