Mermaid Records [Release date 22.07.13]
To say that the opening track on Pete Thomas & The Horns A Plenty’s ‘Big’ has swagger, is to underestimate the title of the album that is big in tone, intent and performance.
‘Big’ brims with the confidence, enthusiasm and the sweat of its making. Just like the generic title of his early work ‘Mad, Bad and jazzy – bad with its contemporary opposite meaning – this is an album full of great playing and a sense of humour.
Pete is in good company of course, with a cast of top player including Guy Barker, Annie Whitehead, Ashley Slater and Brian Abrahams who do him proud and give the performance that little bit extra.
Above all this is an album that belies the sometimes staid, big band jazz image and is a worthy reminder of just what it is that made big horn led bands so popular all those years ago. There’s swing, R&B and honking aplenty, as well as jump blues, Caribbean and Latino influences making the two MOR numbers a curious choice for such a powerful album.
The strength of this album is that the Pete has managed to bottle the excitement of a big band in a studio environment. There’s a very organic live feel to the music, as evidenced by the bristling solos on the breathless ‘Boomtown’ and the manic pumping horns, jungle beat and tension busting expiation of the jumping ‘Swing King’ which is all muted trumpet, deep clarinet, trombone and ball busting horn-led riffs.
If there’s a downside its simply that the set tries too hard to be all things to all people, as the opening funky groove of ‘TCL’ is arguably the most adventurous piece on the album, with Robin Bibi’s funky guitar neatly tucked in with the fat toned horn solo’s, over a kick as rhythm section. For the rest, as expected the horn section blows the roof of the place and everyone contributes sparkling solo’s and finely tuned interplay, but what’s lacking is some original exciting material.
Sure there’s the frantic Nelson Riddle influenced ‘Boomtown’ and the stabbed horns and classic swing of the improbably fast ‘Swing King’, as Thomas proves to the master of hybrid jazz styles. He’s also an excellent arranger who gets the best out of his carefully chosen players. Perhaps that’s all the more reason to try something slightly more interesting. But it’s a minor criticism of a project that jumps, swings and impresses with its passionate delivery.
Of course Pete’s got the CV to back up his chops, having worked with, REM, Dana Gillespie, Elton John, Joe Jackson, Robert Cray and Jimmy Witherspoon, but even that impressive list probably doesn’t prepare you for this abrasive horn led onslaught. The horns are almost manic on the tension busting ‘Swing King’ which pulls and pushing the jumping arrangement this way and that, before the full force of the union playing restates the theme
And just when you’ve settled in to the wild ride, the band pops up with an infectious hip shuffling, baritone infected calypso on the suitably tilted ‘Long Hot Summer’. That track is ebulliently matched by the Cuban jazz feel of ‘Hot Sauce,’ which seamlessly combines horns and flute. The stop-time ‘Mambo Inferno’ is rescued from its percussive overkill by a spiralling horn solo, trombone and Cuban piano, on a track full of bluster that can’t quite disguise its lack of direction
Vocalist Claire Martin adds smooth vocals and confident scat singing as the album heads perilously close to the middle ground on ‘Diamonds & Rubies’. Much like the Andrews Sisters styled ‘Sunny Day’, it might please dinner jazz fans, but is surely out of step with the ‘Big’ concept of this album, while ‘Put It Away Bill’ sound like a filler track.
Far more palatable is the self explanatory ‘Black Jack Jump’ with its big toned solo’s and a hot rhythm section, while ‘Rock Me Til The Money’s Gone’, has a lovely descending intro, baritone solo and 40’s style bv’s . More interestingly there’s the re mixed bonus track of ‘Brat Trap’, which suggest that Pete’s musical radar is perhaps a tad more hip than this play list sometimes suggests. ***½
Review by Pete Feenstra
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