Vaughn Wiester's Famous Jazz Orchestra: Playin' the Book! (2004)
You have to admire Vaughn Wiester’s sense of humor. Nowadays, labeling one’s band the “Famous Jazz Orchestra” is about as amusing a turn of phrase as can be envisioned. You have to admire Wiester’s sidemen too—a group of gentlemen (and four ladies) who keep on Playin’ the Book for love, certainly not for money, at their friendly oasis, the Columbus (OH) Music Hall. Last, and perhaps most important, you have to admire how they play that book, with more proficiency and passion than one should reasonably expect from musicians who often find it hard simply to get together and rehearse (hence the title of the band’s earlier album, Sight Readin’, Baby! ). Speaking of “sight readin’,” we should point out that there are only four holdovers from that album on Playin‘ the Book —trumpeter Erik Gimbel and trombonists Matt Ellis, Bill England and Kie Watkins.
Wiester explains the band’s philosophy this way:
The book the FJO plays is weighted toward the Stan Kenton, Count Basie and Woody Herman libraries of the fifties and early sixties. The big bands of [that] period had a wider dynamic and expressive range than [that] of the Swing Era bands... The sweetness and many other stylistic trappings of the earlier music were discarded and the resulting sound was more streamlined and [showed] increased variety, contrast and orchestral potential... It all adds up to a classic style that wears well to this day, some fifty years on.
Indeed it does. The music presented here was written during the period from 1935-64, with “Little Girl Blue” and “Summertime” the earliest works, “People” (from the musical Funny Girl ) the most recent.
In keeping with the album’s theme, Wiester lists next to each song its number in the book, opening smartly with #214, “It Could Happen to You,” one of three selections on which Wiester solos (the others are Ralph Burns’ classic opus for trombonist Bill Harris, “Bijou,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Spring Is Here”). The rest of the program consists of four standards strewn among superb compositions by Bill Holman (“Quick Step”), Gene Roland (“Opus in Chartreuse”), Bobby Troup (“The Meaning of the Blues”), Quincy Jones (“Jessica’s Day”), Tiny Bradshaw / Bobby Plater (“Jersey Bounce”), Gerry Mulligan (“Walkin’ Shoes”) and Ernie Wilkins (“A Swinging Serenade”). The captain gives almost everyone on the team at least one chance to score, and no one lets him down. There are a number of engaging solos, especially by tenor saxophonist Bryan Olsheski and trumpeters Jim Powell and Ed Morrison.
The fly in the ointment, as with so many in-concert recordings, is the overall sound, which lacks balance, clarity and separation, is far more harsh and heavy than harmonious, and lends drummer Steve Schaar more prominence than is warranted. But such are the perils of live recording dates, particularly when currency is at a premium (even though, for reasons unknown, the sound on Sight Readin‘ is noticeably better). But no matter the shortcomings, we listeners should be thankful that orchestras such as Wiester’s, famous or unknown, keep on skirmishing in the trenches and lend them our unqualified support, as the alternative is too gruesome to contemplate.
Track Listing: It Could Happen to You; Quick Step; Too Close for Comfort; Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year; Opus in Chartreuse; The Party
Personnel: Vaughn Wiester, leader, solo trombone; Erik Gimbel, Ed Morrison, Ansyn Banks, Jim Powell, Phil Winnard, trumpet; John Vermeulen, Tom Ryan, alto sax; Bryan Olsheski, Kevin O
Style: Big Band