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Track listing:
1. Symphony in Riffs
2. The Legend
3. Too Close for Comfort
4. Cheek to Cheek
5. Time Check
6. Cupid's Nightmare
7. Children's Hour of Dream
8. The Checkered Demon
9. The Stampede
10. Wyrgly
11. The Gate: A Portrait of
The Mohawk
12. Sing, Sing, Sing

Keith Pray (Reeds)
Jim Corigliano (Reeds)
Kevin Barcomb (Reeds)
Brian Patneaude (Reeds)
Brett Wery (Reeds)
Jon Bronk (Trumpet)
Scott Thompson (Trumpet)
Terry Gordon (Trumpet)
Peter Bellino (Trumpet)
Steve Lambert (Trumpet)
Gary Barrow (Trombone)
Amy Giammattei (Trombone)
Ken DeRagon (Trombone)
Dan Cordell (Trombone)
Cliff Brucker (Piano)
Mark Foster (Vibes/percussion)
Jack Fragomeni (Guitar)
Otto Gardner (Bass)
Bob Halek (Drums)
Colleen Pratt (Vocals)
William Meckley
(Music Director/Conductor)

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The Empire Jazz Orchestra

Symphonies In Riffs

by Tom Pierce

What's so special about big bands in jazz? Some younger music fans who became enamored with jazz long after the big band era, might ask this question, while pointing out the numerous extraordinary recordings and live performances in the post-swing years by many smaller groups. However, these lovers of the unique charm and intimacy possible in duos and trios, as well as the freedom and extended individual soloing opportunities in quartets and quintets, would do well to give a close listen to this latest (fourth) CD by the Empire Jazz Orchestra, for a fine example of the richly layered and dynamic possibilities unique to big bands.

Music director Bill Meckley chose a wide range of excellent material for the concert this live recording documents, encompassing the major styles of orchestral jazz from the 1920's to the finest contemporary artists. The opening title track is one of two works by the incredibly talented composer/arranger/trumpeter/saxophonist Benny Carter. His magnificent contributions spanned eight decades, from 1922 up to the dawn of the new millennium, before his passing at 95 in 2003. That sprightly syncopated title piece written in 1933 and performed here with brief solos by five different band members, contrasts interestingly with the other Carter inclusion, “The Legend” from 1961. It features post be-bop influences, with exciting solos by Steve Lambert and Brian Patneaude.

The CD also includes compositions by two other important early Jazz innovators - Fetcher Henderson and Don Redman. Henderson, whose preeminent all-star orchestra started in 1923, actually predating Duke Ellington's 1927 initial recording, is represented with a jaunty romp of his “The Stampede” (1926), highlighted by Kevin Barcomb and Peter Bellino solos. Closely allied in the early 1920's with Henderson was his chief writer, reedman Don Redman, long considered the virtual inventor of big band arranging. The EJO ensemble offers a surrealistic, medium tempo version of Redman's hauntingly imaginative 1940 “Cupid's Nightmare”.

The two most rousing, straight ahead swingers are the exuberant Louis Prima's rollicking 1933 standard, “Sing, Sing, Sing”, sparked here by the virile drumming of Bob Halek; and the very popular “Time Check”, a favorite of fans of the Buddy Rich orchestra. This tune, written by passionate saxophonist/composer Don Menza, is now especially poignant with the intense guitar solo of the recently departed virtuoso, Jack Fragomeni.

Fans of the celebrated modern composer/band leader Maria Schneider will no doubt enjoy her sophisticated 1994 “Wrygrly”, inspired by her unusual fascination with monsters. Its ensemble complexity is warmly complemented by bracing solos from Brian Patneaude, Gary Barrow and Jack Fragomeni. Despite the inclusion of all these engaging pieces by the aforementioned renowned composers (plus one by the provocative genius, Charles Mingus), this observer found himself most repeatedly drawn to the highly moving, extended saga “The Gate: A Portrait of the Mohawk”, by the talented local young composer/bandleader Keith Pray.

Lastly, for Jazz vocal lovers, no performance by this remarkable professional repertory ensemble based at Schenectady County Community College, would be complete without Colleen Pratt. Her poise, precision and power is a delightful match for the orchestra's swinging backing on “Too Close For Comfort” (evoking Joe Williams' joyous 1955 version with Count Basie) and Irving Berlin's classic, “Cheek to Cheek”.

Tom Pierce has had a burning passion for Jazz for over 45 years, initiated and fueled by seeing live in New York City, starting in the early 1960's, virtually every major artist still performing. He's been very happily living in Guilderland the last 8 years, as an active retiree sharing his love of music by writing online reviews for a number of web sites, preparing DVD presentations to various groups, co-Hosting Radio programs showcasing his favorite artists and busily supporting A Place for Jazz and the SwingTime Society in a variety of ways.