On the Wild Side (Jazz Compass JC 1007 [2003])

The John LaBarbera Big Band

by Martin Z. Kasdan, Jr.

I have said it before and I will say it again: Louisville is blessed to have both high quantity and quality jazz musicians and John LaBarbera's On the Wild Side is just the latest evidence of this point. LaBarbera, a professor at the University of Louisville, is part of a jazz family which is well-known and respected in the world of jazz. His saxophonist brother Pat was here in town with Elvin Jones and his drummer brother Joe has played with many of the greats, including the late pianist Bill Evans. John enlists them both as featured players in this recording, as well as a host of other top flight musicians, including (but not limited to) Bill Cunliffe and Tom Ranier (taking turns on keyboards), bassist Tom Warrington, trumpeters Clay Jenkins and Wayne Bargeron, alto sax legend Bud Shank and tenor player Bob Shepard.

The disc opens with a hard-swinging Horace Silver composition, "Mayreh." It is pushed hard by Joe's drums and features a hot Shank solo that justifies the name of the CD. The Miles Davis jazz standard "So What" follows. John noted in an interview with Dick Sisto on WFPK-FM that he wanted to take a fresh look at arranging this piece, ever mindful of the classic Gil Evans big band arrangement documented on the recording Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall. In John's arrangement, the introductory segment is unusual, not just a big band version of the familiar riff. While some big band arrangements sound, to me, to be too "clever," John is able to avoid this trap while making this 45-year-old piece sound fresh. An original composition, "Tiger of San Pedro," is next. As suggested by the title, this is a Latin excursion. Brother Joe's composition "Message from Art," begins appropriately enough, with a drum solo which invokes the spirit of Buhaina. From there, the band comes in sounding like an augmented version of the Jazz Messengers, with punch and verve. In his liner notes, jazz historian Hal Miller refers to the rhythm section of the band, plus Jenkins and Shepard, as making up the Joe LaBarbera Quintet. The combo sound comes through clearly in this tribute, with augmentation by the big band which enhances rather than overwhelms the soloists.

The title piece is an apparently not-previously-recorded John LaBarbera arrangement of Elmer Bernstein's "Walk on the Wild Side," which John originally arranged for Buddy Rich. The familiar melody takes many wonderful twists and turns in this ten-and-a-half minute piece. With the exception of the Lennon-McCartney classic "Eleanor Rigby," the remaining four cuts are original compositions by the leader. He returns to a Latin sound for "Cachaca Gotcha," which is spurred on by the additional percussion of Scott Breadman. The Beatles song follows and is treated to a lengthy workout, with the tempo increased to a gentle swing which certainly gives the mournful composition a fresh feel without moving to such a supercharged version as to become mere parody. "Cloth of Silver - Threads of Blue" is next and is a straightforward, blues-based swinger. The recording concludes with another original, "Highland Crossing." While to those of us here in Louisville, the title might bring to mind the restaurants and nightlife of the Bardstown road area, the sound evokes the greenery of Scotland, with Pat's soprano solo sounding like sophisticated jazz bagpipes.

All in all, this album is one that should make those of us here in Louisville proud that John LaBarbera has chosen to pursue his teaching career here, and give all jazz lovers reason to celebrate a superb big band jazz recording.