Album Review by Steve Wiest

23 May, 2013

A newly-written review of the Callum Au Big Band’s album, “Something’s Coming”, due to be published in the British Trombone Society Magazine this Autumn/Winter, by world-renowned trombonist and leader of the One O’Clock Lab Band, Steve Wiest

The Callum Au Big Band: “Something’s Coming“

A review by Steve Wiest

The wonderfully talented composer, arranger and trombonist Callum Au has given us all a real treat with his debut recording “Something’s Coming.” To use a variation of one of my favorite quotes: “Every time a trombonist can release a project that features a world‐class big band, an angel gets its wings.”

Callum Au is a great musician and veteran of the British jazz scene and specifically the big band community. With credits that include stints in everything from Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra, Syd Lawrence Orchestra, The Laurence Cottle Big Band to a four­‐year membership in the legendary National Youth Jazz Orchestra (wherein he contributed over 50 charts to the NYJO library!), Callum has proven that he himself is “something coming” and a force to reckon with in jazz.

The project swings from start to finish and does so in a wonderful “gumbo” of styles and textures in the best tradition of modern jazz. The opening track, Harry Warren’s classic “September in the Rain”, is given an “homage to Basie and Riddle” touch by Au that is right on point. With a fat ensemble sound reminiscent of the swing era by the band, we are introduced to the great trombone work of the leader. A student of the marvelous trombonist Mark Nightingale and influenced by Carl Fontana and Andy Martin, Callum swings with authority on every solo outing, nailing the changes while staying true to a strong bop‐blues foundation. A very nice moment in this chart is the great sax soli that has more than a bit of Thad Jones spice in the recipe.

After establishing its “street cred” with a swinger, Callum’s big band takes a drastic turn to the super‐funky with one of my favorite cuts on the project titled “Roots”, featuring the blazing Sanborn‐tinged saxophone of one of the top musicians on the British jazz scene Nigel Hitchcock. “Roots” is an original by the veteran flautist Gareth Lockrane (Gareth is himself a big band leader of note with great large ensemble projects in the works). A showcase for soloist Hitchcock, trombonist Robbie Harvey, and guitarist Jon Russell, “Roots” is a groove from start to finish. I love the use of the lead flute sound, which to me is reminiscent of the great Jaco Pastorius “Word of Mouth” sessions. The bridge alone on this chart is worth the price of admission!

Next up on this nicely eclectic project is the boldest move of the entire session: tackling Bernstein’s masterwork “West Side Story.” How does one go after this repertoire without referencing such iconic treatments as those done by Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson? Well, if your name is Callum Au: no problem! Simply put, Callum’s approach to this music has “new classic” written all over it. Wisely choosing to rewrite, reharmonize and reimagine wherever organically possible, Au’s treatment of Lenny’s work is right on the money. It doesn’t hurt that he has Gareth’s gorgeous flute playing at his pen’s disposal either, and Callum features it beautifully throughout. Being a devotee, fan, and friend of the great Maynard Ferguson, I was afraid to listen to “Maria”, but was happily amazed with what Callum did with this most beautiful song. With an ultra hip medium tempo groove and the wonderful vocals of Iain Mackenzie, Callum’s lush treatment of “Maria” is simply masterful. As an important aside, it is important to be reminded of the powerful lyrics that are the foundation of “Maria”, and thanks to Iain, we get just that.

“Cool” actually does become a cool-school vehicle (with electric bursts of energy) for baritone sax soloist Richard Shepherd who turns in a smoking swinging solo. Check out the screamers by lead trumpet Tom Walsh! It has been said by wise souls in this business that if a band has a great lead trumpeter and drummer it will swing. This band has Walsh on trumpet and Ed Richardson on drums (not to mention a “no weak link” lineup of monsters in between!) and therefore are in great shape. “Cool” also gives us a chance to hear the solid bop playing of alto saxophonist Jim Gold, and an amazing solo by trombonist Robbie Harvey. Wow!

I love the transition that pianist Chris Eldred crafts for “Cool” to “Somewhere”. This piano cadenza seems to channel an entire Maria Schneider big band orchestration – such is the mastery of Chris’ harmonic abilities. Bravo! Once we get into “Somewhere” we are treated to Callum’s mastery of reharmonization and reimagining a piece of music. His choice of harmony is both lush and appropriate, quite the trick to pull off, but Callum nails it. And talk about treats! – how about the double delight of Emma Smith’s breathy, sensual vocals and Gareth’s amazing bass flute improvisations? What a wonderful palette of colors Au has to work with in this band!

Then comes one of the coolest decisions of the entire project: take the well-known Latin groove of “America” and replace it with an even hipper rock-tinged Afro-Cuban beat. Add Gareth’s flute over the top of everything and suddenly it seems Bernstein was writing with Jaco’s band in mind! A big fan of “all things extreme low register”, I was fascinated by what I at first thought was a profound basso profundo bass trombone doubled with bari sax. Soon I realised that I was enjoying Peter Long’s use of the obscure but very hip beast known as the Tubax. Peter plays it on a couple of other tracks as well, but it really gets a workout here. Someone tell Hans Zimmer about this instrument right away! Also on this piece we are treated to the artistry of the great Nigel Hitchcock who threads his ideas chromatically through Callum’s extended changes effortlessly. The shout section of this arrangement that begins with flute and keyboard is a nice touch that sets off the 8VB team once again to great effect. After the soli, Henry Armburg Jennings shows off his modern improvisation abilities as well, sounding to my ears like a Till Brönner devotee (a good thing to sound like!).

The wonderful composition “Tonight” begins with a tour de force of orchestral style brass writing that is very mature and effective. I really enjoyed the linear aspect of the voicings here. Everyone takes a turn at the melody as the piece unfolds with Callum’s gorgeous high tessitura trombone leading the way and of course the warmth of Gareth’s flutes throughout. As Callum develops the arrangement he sets up Nigel Hitchcock nicely for a solo outing as well as Gareth, Emma Smith, and Iain Mackenzie. The jazz waltz aspect of “Tonight” is also a nice touch that frames Au’s reharms just right.

The Bernstein suite winds down to a collective improv section that leads to an unexpected voicing for a rousing ending chord. All-in-all, a wonderful arrangement. Well done!

Trumpeter Freddie Gavita’s lovely original “Beloved” is up next and is a very nice collection of pastel textures that bounce off of Brookmeyer-like crunchy chords in a very effective manner. A tune with challenging changes, Simon Marsh has no trouble at all, turning in a very melodic improvisation that builds on the tense nature of the progression in a natural, swinging manner. Lead trumpet Tom Walsh is once again in evidence giving the band its “extra gear” of upper register sparkle.

Dedicated to the great bass trombonist Jack Thirlwall, the album ends with another Callum original titled “Gentleman Jack”. Almost a contrafact on the great Turrentine classic “Sugar”, this grooving chart gives Freddie Gavita on trumpet and Lucas Dodd on alto a chance to really stretch.

I hope that I’ve made it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderfully eclectic first outing by a band that I believe we will hear much, much more from. I think that you will enjoy it as well, so please stop by Callum’s website at http://www.callumaumusic.com/ and order a copy right away! It is one thing to enjoy the modern renaissance of the large jazz ensemble by listening to the music, but it is even better to show your support by purchasing the project! So, I hope you do and I hope that this is merely the beginning for Callum Au and his wonderful Big Band!