It’s rare, when I go out record shopping, that I’m looking out for big band stuff—by and large, I’m more interested in small combo music. Sure, I own plenty of Basie, Dorsey, Ellington, and Lawrence, but those LPs don’t get as much play as Ball, Cole, Jordan, or “McVouty.” I like being able to picture every individual player, isolating each instrument in my mind and picking apart its contribution. There’s something more relatable, to me, about a little band—a 17-piece orchestra just seems like too much to wrap my brain around, sometimes. (Perhaps that’s the anxiety talking.)
That being said, I do enjoy a big band, when I can make the headspace for it—particularly one which swings as hard as the Ron Aprea Big Band, and when it features a vocalist as versatile as Angela DeNiro. So I was very happy to receive another package from Mouthpiece Music in Burbank, CA, this month, containing this killer combination’s Swingin’ with Legends 2 CD. Not only because getting mail is nice, but because the Bandcamp stream of this record really doesn’t do it justice.
As any audiophile will be aware, the more instruments your music includes, the more audio fidelity affects your experience of it: a trio might sound all right in MP3 quality, but an orchestra is going to sound somewhat muddy. And while some will never renounce vinyl as the most infallible of formats (for valid, if anecdotal reasons), CD audio is the undisputed king from a scientific standpoint—certainly when compared with streaming. I’d checked out this particular record online and hadn’t shortlisted it for review. After hearing it on my hi-fi, it jumped to the top of my list.
Composer, arranger and reedman Aprea is a former sideman to Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Tito Puente, Elton John, and John Lennon, amongst others. His collaborations with DeNiro go back a quarter-century: the spouses teamed up on Swingin’ with Legends back in 1998, earning eight Grammy nominations for their work. This included a version of “Lover Come Back to Me” to rival Barbara Streisand’s in bombast, along with equally lively versions of “The Song is You” and “Avalon.” Guest stars included Lionel Hampton (vibes), Frank Foster (tenor) and Lew Tabackin (tenor)—the “legends” of the album’s title. This sequel adds another 14 exciting tracks to the collection, with Tabackin returning alongside Randy Brecker (trumpet) and Ken Peplowski (clarinet).
The blurb which accompanied this CD mentioned that it was recorded in a single day. DeNiro could even have recorded Swingin’ and Swingin’ … 2 on consecutive days—her voice hasn’t faded one iota in 25 years. Her performance on the sequel bears all the hallmarks of her 1998 performance: outstanding dynamic range, pitch-perfect control, tasteful vibrato and impressive scat skills (matched note-for-note by Tabackin on “It Might as Well be Spring” and Todd Bashore [alto] on “Willow Weep for Me”).
The arrangements of tunes including “That Old Black Magic,” “Don’cha Go ’Way Mad,” and “Willow Weep for Me” are hip and swinging, giving individual performers a chance to flex their chops before building into a full-band effort. Often it’s DeNiro who opens proceedings, but on “You’d be So Easy to Love” Peplowski’s trickling becomes a spurt and then a torrent and on “It Might as Well be Spring,” Tabackin sets the tone with a moody film noir interlude. “Hello Young Lovers” is a bait and switch, with Brecker’s tender trumpet intro suddenly giving way to a hard-bopping rendition replete with big horns.
Like the previous Swingin’, this record features one Aprea original: “For Phil” is a musical epitaph to the late saxophonist Phil Woods, a lifelong friend of the composer. It’s a tender tribute in bossa nova, opening with the line: “You don’t have to look, you know it’s Phil / He plays like no other one / Can you just listen to his alto roaring / Oh his tone is so adoring.” Bashore’s sax solo is similarly glittering, backed by a heavenly fanfare of brass. It would have made for an upbeat album closer, but that role goes to Bobby Darin favorite “The Curtain Falls.” You can hear this splendid set on Bandcamp, but you’ll definitely want to get the high-quality FLAC download for $9. Now where can I get a CD of Swingin’…?