By Allen Michie
Bucket List checks every box on the big band wish list: a tight band with a mix of studio pros and locals, an ingenue singer with a career to launch, swinging arrangements, a variety of grooves, solid solos, and plenty of that crowd-pleasing big band punch.
Jim Waller Big Band: Bucket List (self-produced, jimwallerbigband.com)
So, what’s on your bucket list? If you’re a jazz musician, odds are good it includes a gig at the Village Vanguard, having bassist Ron Carter on your record, and playing the Montreux Jazz Festival. Another daydream can be found on most every jazz musician’s mid-life crisis menu, a goal shared by traditionalist and avant-garde experimentalist alike: recording a big band album. A good one. A beautifully recorded two-disk set. One that features your compositions, arrangements, and solos. And, of course, one that gets a rave review in The Arts Fuse.
I don’t know if San Antonio-based Jim Waller has played the Vanguard or recorded with Ron Carter, but he has played Montreux with the University of the Incarnate Word jazz ensemble which he directs. And now, with Bucket List, he’s recorded his dream big band record, and it checks every box: a tight band with a mix of studio pros and locals, an ingenue singer with a career to launch, swinging arrangements, a variety of grooves, solid solos, and plenty of that crowd-pleasing big band punch! and pow!
Waller is a journeyman multi-instrumentalist (mostly tenor sax and keyboards) who has played in a surf band, the jazz/rock combo Los Blues, and the bands of a host of jazz and R&B musicians in and out of Las Vegas. He’s also a producer and audio engineer who can build recording studios as well as he structures tenor sax solos. The album cover boasts of something called the “closed loop analog signal processing system.” All I know is that recording sounds intimate and warm with great presence and separation.
There are no big names on the roster except for drummer Will Kennedy from the Yellowjackets, a jazz fusion group which recently recorded their own big band album (Arts Fuse review here). Big band drumming in this style is notoriously and deceptively difficult. Kennedy is surprisingly a model player throughout: he doesn’t miss a single twist or turn in these angular arrangements, and he never overplays, underplays, or hits a single false stroke. “This Is It” shows how well Kennedy plays in perfect unison with the horns, including the dynamics. It sounds like he’s played and rehearsed with this band for years. The drum notation must be highly precise, and he must be a dynamite sight reader.
Bucket List is a great platform and introduction for San Antonio vocalist Jacqueline Sotelo. She bravely takes on “God Bless the Child,” inviting comparisons to Billie Holiday, but having a big band like this behind her makes the listener think more of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ version. In that context, her take on “God Bless the Child” balances jazz phrasing with some R&B rhythms and a voice that folds naturally into the textures of the band. With the arrival of an up-tempo salsa finale there’s no need to think of Billie Holiday any longer — after all, this is San Antonio.
Sotelo also scats with swing and imagination on “I Love Being Here with You.” She switches to a more soulful sound on “Georgia On My Mind,” suggesting Randy Crawford a bit in her phrasing. She can also recall Dinah Washington in “Why Don’t You Do Right.” Waller’s savvy enough to find a singer who sings with the band, not just in front of the band. Sotelo is the perfect choice for this varied program of textures and grooves.
There are lots of small pleasures mixed in with the big ones. One of them is the sound of a good sax section soli, a treat that goes back to the Glenn Miller band. There are several buttery ones here, including on “Love Being Here with You,” “Waltz for Laura,” and “Why Don’t You Do Right.” Waller plays Hammond organ on “New Blue Funk” and “Funksuite 109,” always a great addition to a big band. The organ is recorded across the soundstage as if the length of the keyboard is the distance between your speakers. “Funksuite 109,” a Waller original, features a crisp Kennedy backbeat and solo. Jason Valdez adds a taste of distorted electric rock/blues guitar and, with these bright horns, it’s the sonic equivalent of scotch and ice water.
“A Ballad for Bob” showcases Waller’s ballad chops on tenor (imagine Stan Getz doing a Ben Webster impression and you’ll get the idea). Waller’s composition seems to borrow some melody and harmony from Gerry Mulligan’s lovely “Song for Strayhorn.” Elsewhere, on the up-tempo pieces, there tends to be a tight, choppy interplay between horn sections, like they are alternating phrases from a staccato Maceo Parker solo (Maceo! Call your agent). There is some occasional nice mixing of instruments, like the electric guitar playing in unison with the trumpet section on “Waltz for Laura,” but Waller doesn’t draw heavily from that Duke Ellington/Gil Evans orchestral tradition.
Finally, there is the crown jewel, a fresh reimagining of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” arranged by Waller for the expanded band with a six-piece string section, timpani, and French horn. It has multiple sections that implausibly fit nicely together: there is a lindy-hop section, some sweet band nostalgia, a Latin salsa, and a big Hollywood theatrical conclusion with rolling timpani drums. There’s even a taste of electric blues guitar that sounds a bit shocking when you first hear it, but it works well in this context and brings the entire piece into the musical orbit of our time. Being in front of a great band on a piece like this must be on every conductor’s bucket list. It’s an arranger’s triumph, a high achievement for the band, and loads of fun for the listener.
Bucket List isn’t interested in making big new advancements; it creates highly enjoyable and skilled music by adroitly embracing a rich big band tradition. This is one of the best traditional big band records you’ll hear this year, or maybe this decade. “Rhapsody in Blue” puts it over the top.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, TX. For a glorious year in 1988, he was the overly enthusiastic and underprepared conductor of the Oxford University Big Band.