After all, Masso is a mainstay of faculty programs and trad groups like the World's Greatest Jazz Band (did I miss the vote?), hardly hotbeds of unsystematic innovation. Systematic static, perhaps? As well, Arbors Records has specialized for over a decade in sensitive, if not always stirring, re-creation-type records by artists such as Dick Wellstood, Ruby Braff, Bob Wilber, Ken Peplowski, and both the Pizzarellis, father and more-ancient son. However, what labels like Arbors and artists like Masso have taught us is that there is one simple and fool-proof way to make this music remain engaging in an era when one could argue it's past its prime - simply inject as much straightforward joy as one possibly can, and it'll all be good.
Which is both where George Masso succeeds, and at times, where he falters. It is clear that the trombonist thought carefully about these arrangements before entering the studio: with a line of four trombones, Lou Colombo on trumpet, and two super-arsenaled reed players, Masso is able to elicit an often shifting, and occasionally intriguing palette of colors, both to jumpstart soloists and to interrupt them, or sometimes just to talk with them in supportive conversation. Witness, for example, the way the four trombones mournfully echo Dick Johnson's tenor on "I'll Never Be the Same," how they erupt at full power on "Bonnet Strut," or how they drop out entirely on the gorgeous guitar-flute section of "But Beautiful." It is with studied skill that Masso has approached these tunes, arranging them into a variety of moods and emotional colors; however, the joy mentioned above is not something that can be achieved in any such manner.
It is clear that this group is having the most fun on a number like "Pick Yourself Up," where the sharp and staccato echo of the muted trombones move at a rumble step against the sprightly flute-piano statement. Everything, from Lou Colombo's on-the-beat jabs and hooks, to inventive guitarist Jon Wheatley's streamlined bop surprises, make the performance shimmy, shake, and feel altogether fresh. And with repertory as often-attempted as this, that is a fine mark to shoot for. The only problem is that this is not the mark where the group consistently remains on this record. A number like "Only Trust Your Heart" sluggishly slides the nova out of its bossa, while "Black Butterfly" is hardly an improvement over the original.
Still, this album should have plenty of the former type of moments to please any mainstream fan, or anyone looking for new music not through new forms, but emotional responses to the old.