This listener has never been to Yoshi’s nightclub in Jack London Square, nor has experienced first hand the music of the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. It is no consolation however, that Trench Heroes is certainly the next best thing to being there. This very fine recording brings to the mind’s ear the thrilling reality of eighteen of the Bay Area’s finest jazz musicians swinging together in front of an enthusiastic audience in the confines of this well-known San Francisco jazz nightclub. The performance of the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra is not only first rate, but so are the charts selected for the recording. The band’s book draws upon the writing of Charles Mingus, Frank Foster, and Oliver Nelson. Chuck MacKinnon one of the CJO’s trumpet players also contributed two originals, and Eddie Nuccilli’s arrangement of "Body and Soul" is an excellent version of this time-tested standard.
The opening selection, Mingus’ "Slop" demonstrates the band’s deft weaving in and out of time and tempo changes in an excellent reading of this challenging composition. Alto saxophonist Eric Crystal also adds an inventive and attention grabbing solo. "Buddy T," a somewhat whimsical medium-up swinger penned by Chuck MacKinnon, features the trumpet player in a lively solo, followed by another inventive improvisation by alto player Crystal. Duane Lawrence, the band’s vocalist is featured on two selections, the Count Basie/Jimmy Rushing "Going to Chicago," and also the Carol Coates ballad "City Lights." Lawrence’s burnished baritone voice and smooth delivery is very reminiscent of the late Joe Williams, with a clear distinct delivery, but never a lack of feeling or soul. Frank Foster’s "Disapproachment" smacks the listener back into an energetic up-tempo swinging reality with burning solos by trombonist Marty Wehner and tenor saxophonist Tod Dickow. The cooler, laid-back tune "Self Help is Needed" by Oliver Nelson follows and features alto soloist Tony Corman. The standard "Body and Soul" is recreated by the CJO as a medium tempo swinger and features the soloing of Eric Crystal and pianist Jacob Semetko. The band winds up their roughly fifty seven minute recording with another Chuck MacKinnon original "These Times." "These Times" another straight-ahead swinger with solos again by Crystal and MacKinnon. The mid point of the arrangement features pianist Semetko in an extended unaccompanied solo cadenza that eventually brings the band back swinging hard as ever, and concludes extending drummer Danny Spencer some solo space.
For the big band jazz fan residing in the San Francisco area, they are truly fortunate to have at hand the opportunity to hear the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra live during one of their regular Monday night gigs. For the rest of us living at some distance, Trench Heroes is more than a suitable substitute and a great addition to a jazz CD collection.