4 1/2 STARS
Composer/arranger John La Barbera has been at the top of his game for more than half a century, and Grooveyard is simply another example of his undiminished artistry. Besides arranging everything—superbly, as always—La Barbera wrote six of the session's ten charming songs, escorting other treasures by Carl Perkins, Dave Brubeck, Curtis Fuller and Elvin Jones.
As he writes his handsome and colorful big-band charts, La Barbera is always careful to observe Rule No. 1: they have to swing. That starts with the rhythm section (check) and encompasses brass and reeds (check again). There are those, of course, who may assert that any band La Barbera assembles has an unfair advantage. Need an awesome saxophone soloist? Pat La Barbera says he can make the gig. How about an exceptional drummer to drive the band's rhythm section? Joe La Barbera is ready and able. Okay, that may not be entirely above-board, but in bands led by John La Barbera, blood usually swings harder than any alternative.
And the alternatives here are plentiful and talented, as pianist Renee Rosnes and bassist Rufus Reid helping brother Joe ignite the rhythm behind a remarkable trumpet section led by John Chudoba and similarly impressive trombones helmed by Ryan Keberle. As for the reeds, one can hardly go astray with Steve Wilson and Erica von Kleist on alto, brother Pat and Sam Sadigursky on tenor and Andy Gutauskas on baritone. That's before mentioning clarinetist Juan Ruiz who shares center stage with Sadigursky (also on clarinet) on La Barbera's high-flying "Choro Para Thiago."
The album opens with Perkins' groovy title song (solos by Pat on tenor and guitarist Brandon Coleman) before going Latin—for the first time—on "My New Summer Samba," a bright and tantalizing charmer inspired by John's visit to Brazil in 2017 wherein Pat switches to soprano while Keberle and Joe solo as well. Brubeck wrote the amiable "For Iola" to praise his wife of seventy years; Pat solos, again on soprano, and Rosnes adds the first of three persuasive statements. The next four tunes were written by John, starting with "Thanks Hank," a warm-hearted tribute to Henry Mancini whose TV series, Peter Gunn, John writes, was the siblings' lone source of live jazz as they were growing up in a small town in New York state. Rosnes and Sadigursky solo on an ultra-hip theme that sounds as though it could have been written by Mancini himself, right down to the Pink Panther-esque fade.
"Tranesome," John's multi-colored salute to John Coltrane, is next, with Pat on tenor and Rosnes sharing solo honors, followed by "Choro Para Thiago" and John's animated bow to trumpeter Kenny Dorham, "K's Delight," on which trumpeter Brandon Lee (one of John's former students) deps for Dorham and Sadigursky adds a second solo. Sooner or later, any big band worth its name must lay on a blues, and John covers that base nicely with the (not-at-all) "Mandatory Blues"—and what better place for Wilson and trumpeter Clay Jenkins to take their first (and only) solos, brightening the landscape while brother Joe nourishes the rhythm. Fuller's light and lyrical "Sweetness" is another of the album's pleasant surprises, skipping merrily along behind captivating solos by baritone Gutauskas and trombonist Steve Davis. That leads to the stalwart finale, Jones' "Keiko's Birthday March," introduced by brother Joe who later delivers his only extended solo (well worth the wait), punctuating decisive ad libs by Pat on tenor and trumpeter Jenkins.
Yes, Grooveyard is, in some ways, a family affair—and that's an unequivocal bonus when the family name is La Barbera. It is, however, far more than that, ensnaring the listener on every number with an irresistible blend of power and finesse. To put it another way, for big-band enthusiasts it doesn't get much better than this.