Jazz CD Reviews

Frank Macchia – Saxolollapalooza – Cacophony

The concept is basic but brilliantly achieved: throw six saxophone players together with a percussionist and book some studio time.

Published on March 13, 2009

Frank Macchia – Saxolollapalooza – Cacophony
Frank Macchia – Saxolollapalooza – Cacophony FMC514, 54:04 ****:

(Frank Macchia – conductor, arranger, producer, clarinet, contrabass clarinet, tenor and baritone sax, flute, alto flute; Eric Marienthal – alto and soprano sax, flute; Sal Lozano – alto sax, piccolo, clarinet; Bob Sheppard – tenor sax, clarinet, flute; Gene Cipriano – baritone sax, clarinet, flute; Jay Mason – bass sax, bass clarinet; Peter Erskine – drums, percussion)

Good ideas often are best when left to gestate, marinate, or even lie in a footlocker until the idea is ripe and the moment is right. And so it goes with the germination of Frank Macchia’s latest project, Saxolollapalooza. The concept is basic but brilliantly achieved: throw six saxophone players together with a percussionist and book some studio time. Of course, with Macchia at the helm, there is more to it than that, which is why Saxolollapalooza has an equally agreeable and refreshing payoff.

Macchia explains in his liner notes the inspiration to arrange music for six saxophones (two altos, two tenors, one baritone, and one bass sax) with a drummer came to him in 1990: a wacky kind of contemporary jazz band. Thankfully, Macchia did not abandon his plans and in the process of putting his proposition into fruition, gathered a versatile who’s who of Los Angeles saxophonists that includes Eric Marienthal, Sal Lozano, Bob Sheppard, Gene Cipriano and Jay Mason, along with former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine.

Macchia runs through many well-known songs doused in New Orleans elan, awash with funk and samba, with a bit of blues on the side. His charts never stray from familiar melodies but always offer each musician freedom and provide each instrument a chance to dip, dash or spin out through the topside arrangements, which are challenging, colorful and enthusiastic.

The lead cut, Benny Goodman’s “Air Mail Special,” bangs open the album, with Erskine splashing off a cubic, slightly hip-hop beat, followed by a brocade of multihued saxophones that evokes a big band bellowing to swing dancers to take the floor. Sheppard launches one of his many fiery tenor sax solos, and the ensemble kicks through a three-part, eight-bar blues canon and ends with a stout, short chorus.

Being a one-man rhythm section, Erskine has his hands full, but capably and ably holds down varying tempi throughout the proceedings. He lays in a New Orleans second line groove on the timely classic “Down by the Riverside,” a soulful jam that sustains a sprightly Crescent City fervency, although the woodwinds helpfully aid Erskine by slapping out some handclaps. The tune is easily one of the record’s most entertaining pieces, rolling layered saxophones into harmonious tones and winding patterns. The arrangement builds slowly, beginning with handclaps and Erskine’s percussion, then Sal Lozano’s piccolo enters, Jay Mason’s bass clarinet slides in and duets with Lozano’s piccolo, and that’s just the start. Flutes assemble a light chorus, saxophones ripple in, the melody goes through some key change shifts, and the whole reaches a sparkling, comic apex. Another amusing gem that zips and leaps is “Shortening Bread,” which also maintains a Louisiana second-line groove, where Marienthal and Sheppard trade fours while Lozano cooks on clarinet.

Macchia tackles two tunes associated with Duke Ellington. First in the program is a bluesy rendition of “Caravan,” which  conjures languid desert heat. The simmering samba beat and ascending saxophone lines convey Ellington’s voicings, and render an earthy expression that mingles seduction with Sahara- surrendered passion. Marienthal glistens on alto sax on the resounding, drum-less “Creole Love Song,” better known as “Creole Love Call.” Macchia changes things up with a small company of four clarinets and a bass clarinet, and astute listeners might also notice Macchia overdubs some contrabass clarinet, doubling the bass an octave lower.
Macchia and his crew do not lose sight of modernity, either. They establish thick funk on a sharp and sassy cover of Michael Jackson’s urbanized “Working Day And Night,” which gleams with a Marienthal-led melody, a noteworthy Sheppard tenor sax solo and metropolitan irreverence. Again, Macchia organizes the material to furnish each musician his own area, and the result is a broadened appeal and is decisively joyous. Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” also has an up-to-date feel, with a jungle groove that features an understated but finely pointed Erskine drum solo and Lozano’s tempered alto sax work.

concludes with both a spiritual and Dixieland mood. The sextet gives the oft-recorded gospel psalm “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” a light-footed workout, which is prefaced with a graceful Macchia unaccompanied solo before the others step in as one and traverse through the popular theme. The seven musicians finish the album the same way they commence Saxolollapalooza, in an upbeat manner, with a samba-fied take of the old chestnut, “That’s A-Plenty,” which crescendos with a lively adlib that has the entire group exchanging bursts of brass back and forth.

Frank Macchia accepts his role as a composer, arranger, producer, and overall musician seriously. All through Saxolollapalooza he has crafted arrangements that revitalize well-worn material and bring out the best aspects of newer songs. His involvement in every direction of the production is shown in the meticulous but also natural-sounding mix, where he and engineer Andy Waterman emphasize both the higher timbres of instruments like flutes, while giving similar attention to lower-pitched instruments.

1. Air Mail Special
2. Down by the Riverside
3. My One and Only Love
4. Working Day and Night
5. Java
6. Caravan
7. Shortening Bread
8. Bluesalicious!
9. Creole Love Song
10. Work Song
11. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
12. That’s A-Plenty

— Doug Simpson


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