NYJazz Initiative – Mad About Thad – Jazzheads JH1185, 58:40 ***1/2:

(Rob Derke – soprano & tenor saxophone; Ralpa Lalama – tenor saxophone; Steve Wilson – alto saxophone; David Smith – trumpet, Flugelhorn; Sam Burtis – trombone, tuba; Mark Meyers – trombone (track 1); Art Hirahara – piano (tracks 1, 5, 6); David Bryant – piano (tracks 2-4, 7, 8); Carlo De Rosa – bass; Eric McPherson – drums)

Thad Jones was a harmonically progressive trumpet and cornet player with a distinguishing sound and tone, as well as a gifted arranger/composer, both as a solo artist and co-running The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. It has been a quarter century since the jazz world lost Jones, but his music and legacy continues to prosper due to numerous tributes, including the NYJazz Initiative release, Mad About Thad (the title tips a hat to Jones’ 1957 album Mad Thad).

Mad About Thad boasts an hour of Jones’ compositions – from opener “Bird Song,” previously done by J. J. Johnson and Tommy Flangan among others, to the closing “Elusive,” an obscurity which Pepper Adams adapted – and a solid roster featuring saxophonists Rob Derke, Ralph Lalama and Steve Wilson; trumpeter/Flugelhorn player David Smith; trombonists Sam Burtis and Mark Meyers; pianists Art Hirahara and David Bryant (on separate tracks) and rhythm aces Carlo De Rosa (bass) and Eric McPherson (drums).

The musicians who participate in NYJazz Initiative ensembles such as the one on this record echo Jones’ heritage by keeping jazz thriving, generating an environment where jazz can be promoted to the masses, and helping and influencing younger artists. The big band on Mad About Thad also reaffirms the notion of emerging and more experienced musicians coming together. Stalwarts Lalama and Burtis have direct connections to Jones. Lalama joined The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra (still running as the Village Vanguard Orchestra) in 1983 when it was still co-led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis; Burtis has also worked with the same group. Wilson was with Chick Corea’s Origins, toured with the Mingus Big Band and has been a solo artist since the early 1990s. Derke is a well-regarded saxophonist, jazz educator and arranger (he arranged half of the Mad About Thad tracks). Among the younger members, Hirahara has extensive credits and released a solo venture earlier this year; De Rosa has performed with several East Coast jazz guys such as Amir ElSaffar and Rudresh Mahanthappa; Bryant has backed many artists from Wynton Marsalis to Steve Coleman; Smith has produced two solo albums and recorded with Lonnie Plaxico and others; McPherson also has a pair of solo recordings and since the early 1990s has logged time with everyone from Jackie McLean to Fred Hersch.

Mad About Thad
commences with the playful “Bird Song,” an enjoyable escapade with Hirahara’s inspired keyboards, Derke, Lalama and Wilson’s tripled horns and McPherson’s firm cymbal beats and sturdy drums. Derke and Burtis’ sax/tuba duet is also memorable. The most famous piece is Jones’ standard, “A Child Is Born.” This quiet classic moves securely and slowly with beautiful sax, piano and soft percussion while Smith adds a lovely Flugelhorn solo which evokes Jones’ peaceful fortitude. Derke’s arrangement of the celebrated “Mean What You Say” gives the horns a much larger group sound, with trumpet and sax upfront during solo selections, while Bryant’s piano glides through the arrangement’s middle and the drums (particularly the cymbals again) fashion detailed rhythmic components. The brisk standout “Three and One” flawlessly shifts from an odd-metered 7/4 Latin groove and straightforward swing; the whole band handles the meter changes with brilliance while Derke (on tenor sax) and Wilson (alto sax) both deliver heated solos. De Rosa’s unruffled bass and Hirahara’s animated piano also assist to shape “Three and One” as one of the best tracks on this set.

The track list also offers often overlooked material. Lalama recorded “Evol Deklaw Ni” over 20 years ago on his Feelin’ and Dealin’ (Criss Cross, 1990) and it is nice to hear him return to this tune. Muted sax initiates Toby Wine’s sprightly arrangement which utilizes a full horn frontline with plenty of sax solo space and careful rhythmic and percussive support from De Rosa – who has a blithe bass solo – and McPherson. This cut is a good example of how this band remains true to Jones’ vision while being persistently imaginative.
 
TrackList:

1. Bird Song
2. Quiet Lady
3. Mean What You Say
4. A Child Is Born
5. Lady Luck
6. Three and One
7. Evol Deklaw Ni
8. Elusive

— Doug Simpson