Friday, September 24, 2010

We're Still Having Fun, and They're Still the "One"*

Everyone has their own early-autumn rituals, and one of mine is making the very short trek to UT-Dallas on the last Friday in September to see the One O'Clock Lab Band perform about as close to my backyard as they get. Director Steve Wiest, a former college classmate of mine, calls this performance their "first real breakout gig" of the new year after a few early appearances on campus in the Syndicate (which I had to miss this year due to an obligation with my Region Jazz students) and the One O'Clock Lounge (which seems appropriate enough, doesn't it?).

It's always impressive how this band can put together a concert at such a high level in such a short time, especially considering the fact that there's often quite a bit of turnaround from the previous semester (this year, it's two new saxophones, two new trumpets, three new trombones and an entirely new rhythm section). Whether playing things from the new CD, Lab 2010 (which they had to learn in its entirety in about three days' worth of rehearsals for the Syndicate gig) or timeless One O'Clock classics from decades past, the band progresses seamlessly from year to year without missing a beat (*insert rim shot if desired*).

This year's concert opened with the Grammy-nominated "Got a Match?" from Lab 89, and the band made its way flawlessly through the intricate lines (which Chick Corea originally wrote to be played just by himself and John Patitucci). Since Lab 2010 was for sale in the lobby at intermission, a generous selection of tunes from the new CD were sprinkled throughout the evening, including "Prime Directive" (a Dave Holland tune arranged by student Josh Dresser), "The Oracle" by student Kevin Swaim, Director Emeritus Neil Slater's "Not Yet," and current director Wiest's "New Cydonia."

Closing the first half was a tribute to Director Emeritus Leon Breeden, who passed away in August. The triumvirate of tunes opened with "Willow Weep for Me" (performed by Breeden himself on clarinet on his final album with the band, Lab '81, and masterfully done tonight by Brian Clancy, who holds the lead tenor chair in the band) and was followed by a mash-up of two Lou Marini compositions from the '60s, "Looking with New Eyes" (which started out with a flowing melody to which one might picture Mary Tyler Moore walking through downtown Minneapolis, before descending into wonderful chaos) and "Hip Pickles" (a screaming blues-rock romp).

Certain things are expected at a One O'Clock Concert: Will they play some Stan Kenton? Of course they will; this time, it was the wonderful Marty Paich arrangement of "Body and Soul," featuring new pianist Colin Campbell. Will they choose the two-minute barn-burner "Machito" as an encore? Well, for a second it appeared that they wouldn't this year, choosing instead the fine Bret Zvacek arrangement of "Harlem Nocture" that opens Lab 85 (which would be my personal choice as the next "old" recording to be re-released on CD). But that generated enough applause at the end to warrant playing an "encore to the encore," so the tune I've dubbed a "two-minute, eighteen-second ball of energy" did indeed end the concert on a good (and very high) note.

Somebody asked me at intermission if I preferred the Wiest version of the One O'Clock to that of Slater; my initial answer was that it would be very hard to choose between my former professor (Slater), whose offering of a spot directing lab bands for two years in grad school set the stage for most of what I do now, and my longtime friend and former schoolmate (Wiest). But I also added this: I think that Wiest has brought some new youthful energy to the band (he may be in his early fifties, but I've considered him a "young soul" for the entire time we've known each other). He's also taken the band in some daring new directions (sure, some things get a little more "out" at times, but as I've noted before, the older I get, the "outer" I like). Besides, no matter how much some tunes seem to leave the planet at times, they're always anchored by that underpinning of swing that's so vital to good jazz.

I'm also quite impressed with some of the little touches that Wiest has added to the band--most notably, the increased attention to dynamics; the One O'Clock has long been known as the "higher, faster, louder" band, but Wiest has expanded the dynamic spectrum to include a lot of softer passages in certain places. It's extremely effective, and it's more than a casual nod to those pioneers of big band, the Count Basie Orchestra, whose dynamic range varied from a whisper to a scream. I also enjoy the things that Wiest does with the rhythm section during certain solos--adding stop-time or allowing the time to get very loose and combo-ish on occasion.

As noted many times before, I received both of my degrees from UNT, and you already know of my ties to the director, so I realize that all of this could just come off as excessively rooting for the home team. But I've never been hesitant to offer constructive criticism when necessary; it's just that, more often than not, all I can do is rave about what the One O'Clock is doing. This is one of those times.

*Did I really just riff on the lyrics of a rock song from a '70s two-hit wonder for the title of my jazz concert review? Why yes, I did.

Well wishes: I should also include a shout-out to my longtime friend Micah Bell, the new second trumpet player in the band, who's been sidelined by illness this week and had to miss tonight's gig. Get well soon, Micah, and I look forward to seeing you play in the band before long.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "That last piece you played? I can't hum it...any of it."--Old-timer at the concert, to Steve Wiest during intermission. (And the guy had just the right Southern accent so that it really came out as "Ah cain't hum it." Priceless...)

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