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Totally Live at Catalina Jazz Club by The Phil Norman Tentet

A listen to The Phil Norman Tentet’s "Totally" Live at Catalina Jazz Club, even from its start, reveals that its musicians, who have been performing as a group since 1995, perform out of the sheer joy of making music, and one suspects that they would be getting together to play informally even without club engagements or recording opportunities. Such is the enjoyment that the tentet-plus-one projects throughout the recording. Of course, the fact that they recorded live in 2008, complete with announcements by Helen Borgers of KKJZ, applause and informal talk between songs, contributes to the informality of the gathering, as if entertaining friends. Perhaps they were. That was Norman’s intent, as he filled two CD’s of the music from a single night in January, 2008 at the jazz club in Hollywood. He wanted to trim nothing from the memorable event, keeping it all intact as a beginning-to-end example of the group at its best.

Thought Norman’s initial intentions were to capture the stereotypical West Coast cool sound, making it an identifying signature for his band, but hotter minds prevailed. Some of the talent arranging the tentet’s music came from New York, and others just arranged what they felt without regard for categories. One of those indefinable arrangers was Bob Florence, who unfortunately passed away last year after a long career of creating innovative arrangements and influencing younger performers as well. Not only is Florence’s presence felt on the CD with his arrangements of "All Blues," "A Joyful Noise," "Theme and Variations" and "Frothy," but also the entire project is dedicated in his memory.

So, let’s start with Florence’s arrangements. Innovative as ever, Florence always saw opportunity for enhancement even in well-recognized pieces, and so he did with Miles Davis’ "All Blues," as he altered the changes and added a lighter flow that animates the piece, brightening the languor that sometimes accompanies other interpretations. Trumpeter Ron Stout improvises over the changes in his own confident style, reveling in the tune rather than indulging in imitation. Still, even with ten musicians, rather than a big band, Florence wove his own contrapuntal lines coloring the enriched arrangement before a resultant swing. "Frothy" is all stylish wit and understatement, despite its difficult seamlessly winding soprano sax lines of Rusy Higgins before the inevitable dramatic build-up before trumpeter Carl Saunders’ solo. Florence’s own "A Joyful Noise" builds upon repetitive quarter-note treble-clef dissonance, clock-like, and a recurring horn-led phrase throughout, and sure enough, joy emerges irrepressibly as Florence’s friends bring out the possibilities of the composer’s simple-enough ideas. Florence’s arrangement of Bill Holman’s "Theme and Variations" provides the backdrop for Borgers’ final announcements of musicians’ names.

Other highlights include Kim Richmond’s haunting version of "Nature Boy," the saxes at first playing the song as a round, one mirroring the other before the fullness of the group brings out all of its muted hues as if in a continuous slow blossoming. In addition, Richmond makes into a medley Horace Silver’s "The Outlaw" and Martial Solal’s "Middle Jazz," seemingly disparate compositions deserving of more recognition that allow various members of the group to solo throughout, including, interestingly, drummer Dave Tull and bassist Kevin Axt. Roger Neumann reconsidered Oliver Nelson’s "Stolen Moments" and converted it into an insinuating waltz, seemingly a natural conversion due to the piece’s calm moments of sustained tones. It works beautifully, and Rusty Higgins infuses it with a sunny sharpness on alto saxophone contrasting with Ron Stout’s mellow trumpet solo. Speaking of tampering with time signatures, Scott Whitfield did the same thing with Dizzy Gilliespie’s "Night in Tunisia," as he defies expectations with a five-four meter.

In addition to the aptly customized arrangements though, the album provides numerous moments of exhilaration as these exceptional musicians step forth with piquant solos, like Christian Jacob’s piano work on "All Blues," trombonist Andy Martin’s showcased mellifluous interpretation of Willie Maiden’s "Hymn to Her" or Norman’s gorgeous tone on "Nature Boy."

The members of Phil Norman’s tentet are justifiably proud of the result and no doubt remember that night at Catalina Jazz Club indelibly, sharing it now with a broader listenership than those in the audience that night.

Don Williamson

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: The Phil Norman Tentet
  • CD Title: Totally Live at Catalina Jazz Club
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: MAMA Records
  • Tracks: Disk 1: Helen Borgers Intro, I’m Dig, All Blues, The Outlaw & Middle Jazz, Hymn To Her, Frothy, Stolen Moments. Disk 2: Tumbling Tumble Weed, Night In Tunisia, Nature Boy, Robin’s Nest, A Joyful Noise, Theme And Variations
  • Musicians: Phil Norman (tenor saxophone); Rusty Higgins (alto & soprano saxophones, flute); Ruger Neumann (baritone saxophone); Carl Saunders, Ron Stout (trumpet); Andy Martin (trombone); Larry Koonse (guitar); Christian Jacob (piano); Kevin Axt (bass); David Tull (drums); Brad Dutz (percussion)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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