(Published: March 28, 2013)
With the release of It's About Time, the quintet of remarkable musicians who comprise the Verve Jazz Ensemble are finally able to bring the vibrant energy of the live performances that have earned them an incredibly devoted following to a wider audience.
Formed in 2006 by drummer Josh Feldstein, the Verve Jazz Ensemble features NYC-based trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt, who has been cited by Wynton Marsalis as "one of his favorite young trumpet players." Also on board is pianist Matt Oestreicher, a 2012 addition to the band, together with tenor saxophonist Jon Blanck and bassist Chris DeAngelis, both of whom are original VJE members.
After six years of the Verve Jazz Ensemble playing at some of the pre-eminent clubs in Connecticut, the group had a highly developed and evolving vision, as well as an extremely loyal audience. As more and more jazz venues fell victim to the recent economic down turn, the band was faced with receding opportunities to perform. Turning adversity into an opportunity, the VJE decided to record their first CD, continuing the musical momentum that their collaboration had initiated.
The band projects a wide array of richly developed voices on the compelling compilation of music that is It's About Time. From re-interpreted Bebop standards such as "Lady Bird," "Boplicity" and "Jordu," to the dynamic big band reduction of "Big Swing Face" (which was originally made famous by Buddy Rich), to two distinct treatments of well-loved classics - Henry Mancini's "The Days of Wine and Roses" and Oscar Hammerstein's "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" - the deeply integrated group delivers its musical art with incredible style and passion.
Of the nine tracks on the CD, three are alternate takes of songs that precede them on the disc ("Lady Bird," "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," and "Big Swing Face"). "We took a page out the ‘old school' book," laughs Feldstein. "We recorded the CD in one session, during one 8-hour day in the studio, and we did something like five versions of each tune. When it came to post-production, we couldn't decide which take of some of the songs to include, so we just decided we didn't have to decide, and included the alternate takes."
It's About Time kicks off with one of those tracks, Todd Dameron's "Lady Bird," arranged here by saxophonist Blanck. "I wanted to go ‘out' with this a bit," he explains. "Ultimately, we had to work for a balance so that it's not too far out, to keep the listener from getting lost or calling it ‘crazy jazz.'"
Feldstein expounds a bit more on the arrangement. "There's a polyrhythmic kind of twist to this in the beginning, a soft and subtle polyrhythmic suggestion by the cymbals to drive it. Then a nice repetitive, dependable, ‘you can tap your foot to it' structure created by the rhythm section that creates a foundation over which the horns could explore."
Taking on "Big Swing Face," a song best known for its big band pedigree, presented the five-man Verve Jazz Ensemble with quite a challenge. "I had no clue what to do with this song," Blanck admits. "I couldn't hear where Josh wanted to go with it. It was definitely something I had never done before."
The band's collaborative efforts not only resolved the issue of how to tackle that one song, but also led to what Feldstein says "...is becoming kind of our voice, to have a big band feel, but as a quintet, or in other words, to have a quintet that's really a first cousin to a big band sound.
"I love the energy of Bill Potts' arrangement for Buddy's band," Feldstein continues. "It's a real driving big band blow-out tune, the sort Buddy was so famous for. But I also love the melody, and I love the intricacy... the bluesy swing of the tune. And Jon was able to capture the energy and the vitality, the verve, if you will, of that particular tune, and to reduce it in a way that is not thin, that achieved a huge amount of body. It's got tremendous interplay harmonically and melodically between Jon in his tenor role and Tatum on trumpet, with a powerful swinging undercurrent in the rhythm section." Indeed, Feldstein especially digs in on this up-tempo and novel interpretation of the tune, seamlessly blending the small jazz ensemble sound with a big band drumming approach, resulting in a wide open, kickin' tune.
Miles Davis' and Gil Evan's "Boplicity" was, says Blanck, "a difficult tune to approach, but Tatum brought in a different sound with the flugelhorn and Matt played his piano in sync with Tatum, and that really locked in the mood." Greenblatt takes full advantage of his voicing on the band's hypnotic rendition of the tune, creating a smooth, rich mood any New York jazz lounge would be proud of at 3 AM.
When it comes to the ensemble's pianist, "Matt's contribution through the record is so wonderful due to the diversity of his playing," Blanck says. "He has a background that spans everything from folk to pop to the legacy of jazz to classical and world music. You never know what's going to come out of Matt. He's a chameleon."
In addition to Oestreicher's inspired playing, the tender melody of "The Days of Wine and Roses" offers a perfect opportunity to showcase bassist Chris DeAngelis' very sensitive introductory solo as well. DeAngelis, who makes consistently significant contributions to the band's efforts throughout It's About Time, is - due to his many other musical obligations - essentially now a guest artist whose presence rounds out the quintet. The other members of the quartet, the four denim and blue blazer-clad players who grace the cover of the CD, remain as a core group with guest bassists as the need arises.
With a driving sound that supports them in the present, and that will certainly propel them into the future, the Verve Jazz Ensemble have taken an auspicious bow with their debut release. An encore is sure to follow.
ABOUT THE PLAYERS
Jon Blanck has been a member of the Verve Jazz Ensemble since its founding. He fell in love with the spirit of jazz and improvisation at the age of 12 and began playing gigs at 15. The tenor saxophonist and arranger's powerful yet uniquely sensitive sound has propelled him to a vast and accomplished recording, performing and educational career in jazz and funk. Blanck has played with such world-class performers as #1 smooth jazz artist Funkee Boy, as well as P-Funk and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. He has written arrangements for artists such as Joan Jett and Joe Perry.
Verve Jazz Ensemble drummer and leader Josh Feldstein has played up and down the east coast for the past 20 years, with both trios and big bands. A native New Yorker who grew up on the music of the NYC jazz scene, he began playing drums at the age of eleven. He has studied with drum legend Joe Morello and DC-area drum icon Walter Salb, and has been influenced most by Morello, Peter Erskine, and Max Roach. Feldstein exemplifies a swinging, elegant drumming style rooted in a crisp, articulate musicality.
Educated in Seattle's Garfield jazz program, New York's New School and Juilliard, Tatum Greenblatt is a virtuoso in his own right, and has adroitly incorporated his primary influences - Wynton Marsalis, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and, most audibly, Freddie Hubbard. He has already released three albums as a leader, and is one of the jazz scene's rising trumpet stars.
Matt Oestreicher arranges and plays for the acclaimed Apollo Theater Amateur Night band in New York City, and is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, educator, writer and - most significantly - a passionate jazz lover. He has performed/worked with Stevie Wonder, Cee-Lo Green, Will I Am, Jon Bon Jovi, Ben E. King, Jamie Foxx, Alicia Keyes, Bettye LeVette, Jennifer Holliday, and many others. Matt has also toured extensively with the indie-pop band Chester French, opening for Lady Gaga, Blink 182, Weezer, Q-tip and numerous other popular music artists.
More Information: http://www.verve-jazz.com/