November 23, 2020. Imagine deconstructing an award-winning 21-piece band, scattering its members not just across the Delaware Valley but the country, having each instrumentalist record his/her parts individually, and then taking each of those individually recorded parts and surgically stitching it all back together to make it sound like the entire band was recorded in the same place, at the same time.
That's what John Harris and David Pasbrig, faculty in Temple's music technology program, were tasked with doing in order to make the latest from the Temple University Jazz Band, Covid Sessions: A Social Call, a reality during a pandemic. That's why, aside from renderings of silhouetted musicians wearing N-95-looking face masks, there's something else both unusual and striking on this album's front cover: engineers' credits.
Indeed, we are living in extraordinary times when "Recorded, mixed, and mastered by David Pasbrig and John Harris" shares front-cover real estate with "Director Terell Stafford." But what Harris and Pasbrig were able to accomplish by putting this record out is about as close to heroism as one can get in the music industry.
But pros like these don't need the plaudits; Harris has already got plenty of Grammys, Emmys, and Peabodys to his name anyway. No, the herculean task of putting a big band back together is worth the effort when the audio techs know how good the component parts are and how much better they can be when playing with that singular sound Stafford is always preaching. This is a particularly special edition of the Temple University Jazz Band, one of the most accomplished Stafford's had. Prior to the pandemic, they won first prize at the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship, an invitational competition for the nation's top university jazz programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where among the judges were jazz immortals like bassist Ron Carter and Wynton Marsalis.
The experts' reviews are in; these kids can play.
Precision, swing, an appreciation for jazz history, and an abiding respect for Philadelphia's role in that history are always on the menu when talking about a Stafford-led band.
"I think what Philadelphia has, what Temple has, is a very specific sound," Stafford recently told Edirin Oputu of Temple Now. "That passion: It's swing and soul, groove and trust."
And, in this case, respect for some of the biggest and baddest big bands to ever do it; tunes made famous by Ellington, Basie, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and Benny Goodman all receive spirited and dignified treatment here.
The iconic Buck Clayton arrangement of Count Basie's "Avenue C," leads things off, providing a most representative taste of what lies ahead: joyous, unadulterated swing. It's that walking bass line that'll hit you first, followed by a trinkle tinkle of piano, trumpet over the top, and a bouncy but muscly solo from second year tenor saxophonist Ben Stocker. It's evident Stocker has studied the tenor players of that era, but when it comes time for him to speak his piece, the sound is cool and relaxed, not stiff and derivative.
"Bugle Call Rag," a swing-era Dixieland staple first recorded in the early '20s and subsequently made famous by Benny Goodman's orchestra, hits in the two hole and presents a clinic in woodwind section playing, led by brilliant flashes of solo work from the lead clarinetist. As you might infer from the song's title, this one contains some of the most exuberant and playful trumpet soloing on the album, too.
"A Sleepin' Bee" is something of an unexpected entry here. With music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by both Arlen and the novelist Truman Capote, this is one I always associate with Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, but its inclusion here makes much more sense when you consider that many believe the authoritative version to be Mel Torme's, where he's backed by Marty Paich's orchestra. Either way, I'm always glad to hear a take on this sometimes-overlooked tune. The little Latin-flavored interlude, garnished with a trumpet solo by Temple junior Andrew Esch, is a delightful palate cleanser, and the student vocalist sings with panache and great feel for the tune.
The album's lone ballad is Thad Jones' "To You," a beautiful arrangement of big band voices that really showcases the engineers' masterful job of weaving so many disparate parts into the fine tapestry the arrangement demands. An emotionally complex tune tinged with sadness and also hope, it's in capable hands here as Stafford and co. strike the perfect tone, and the solo for muted trombone is cast perfectly.
As is the next tune, Gigi Gryce and Jon Hendricks' instant mood elevator, "Social Call." Whether it's Betty Carter with Ray Bryant or more recent takes by Veronica Swift with Benny Benack III, Jazzmeia Horn and the WDR Big Band, or Cécile McLorin Salvant, this one's always a crowd pleaser. And it doesn't disappoint here; the vocals are authoritative yet whimsical, especially on the tune's back end.
The penultimate selection speaks to the role each musician's asked to play in a Stafford-led band— it's "Groove Merchant," a staple of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis songbook. And true to form, they are willing and able purveyors of the groove here, with special shout-out to the woodwinds who proceed with impressive endurance through wave after wave of tight harmonies; they are the straw stirring the drink here.
They close with Ellington's "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," the tune the Duke performed to pandemonium at Newport in 1956, the performance said to revitalize his then-waning career. Stocker is again tapped for the sax solo; this time it's the one that bridges the two halves of the piece, the one immortalized by Paul Gonsalves at that 1956 date. The young Stocker, who recorded his parts alone in a Temple practice room, has handled himself beautifully here with a solo that's commanding yet cool and builds gradually from momentum of its own creation.
And that solo is an apt metaphor for the album as a whole: rollicking, grooving but always in control and consistently building through the album on its own momentum—to the point where the two longest cuts to close things out really do showcase this powerful band at its peak intensity.
Great under any circumstances, but under the present circumstances Covid Sessions is a triumph that Temple ought to celebrate like an American Conference championship.
Written by: Matt Silver