Friday, September 7, 2018

Randy Brecker & Mats Holmquist's Together

Trumpeter Randy Brecker got his start back in the '70s, when he and his late saxophonist brother Michael teamed up as The Brecker Brothers. I bring this up first because Together, Brecker's big band collaboration with arranger Mats Holmquist and the Umo Jazz Orchestra, sounds like it's been plucked right out of that era. There's something kind of jazzy and funky in the vibe here, from the way the music sparkles and glistens like a Lalo Schifrin film score to touches of soul that nearly evoke James Brown and his measured, synchronized ensembles. Brecker is out front, however, his big trumpet sound leading this 18-piece orchestra straight out of Helsinki.

That's right, the Umo Jazz Orchestra is from Finland and Holmquist, for those who already know, is Swedish. That might lead you to search for Scandinavian influences in this vibrant album, but I've tried and I can't hear any. I've always thought that musicians in Scandinavian countries, Sweden in particular, are quite adept at taking American musical genres and playing them in a way that's nearly subterfuge. I'm thinking of everyone from the stunning Swedish metal bands to hip-hop/pop singer Robyn, and how you can listen to them without ever saying "Wow, and they're Scandinavian!"--unless, of course, you start digging into the liner notes. The Umo Jazz Orchestra sounds exactly like any American big band ensemble from the '70s and '80s. They way they evoke those specific impressions is masterful, something you'd expect from an ensemble that has been playing steadily since 1975.

Together is also notable because it's not loaded with old standards like many big band recordings these days. Holmquist is not just a fine arranger, but his original compositions such as "One Million Circumstances" and "All My Things" blend in perfectly with three compositions from Chick Corea--"Crystal Silence," "Humpty Dumpty" and "Windows." (The album also includes a striking arrangement of Evans & Livingston's "Never Let Me Go.") There's a lively and consistent feel through these nine tracks, summarized by Brecker's comment on the liner notes that "there are absolutely no dull moments, you are going to be taken on the ride of a lifetime."

What I find most intriguing in this recording is that sense of expansion and contraction, something I've recently mentioned in other reviews of big band ensembles. It's easy for a big band to go non-stop through the course of an album since they possess all that firepower, but it's an exhilarating feel when they can transition into a quieter passage with precision and ease. It's a remarkable feeling when you shift those gears and go from 18 performers to just a handful, and that adds to the excitement of these big band recordings. That's the very definition of dynamic contrast, of course, and a leading cause of the "goosebump effect." With Brecker's mighty horn at the lead, you should experience this phenomenon over and over during this album.

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