Summer at the Ocean and a Box of Chocolates
By Brian Arsenault
The Michael Treni Big Band
My favorite piece on Pop-Culture Blues is “Summer Blues.” Maybe because it’s still summer, the very heart of it.
The tune begins on a languorous afternoon with a beverage — perhaps several — looking at the ocean. A flock of seabirds rises and soars on Jerry Bergonzi’s tenor sax solo.
Freddie Hendrix’ flugelhorn takes us back to the beach, first quiet after the noisy flock is gone but then the waves start to crash as the tide comes in. Then evening. Peaceful as the light dims but maybe a brief fierce summer storm rises. Quickly dispelled by a warm summer breeze. The moon rises.
On the other hand, my affection could originate in the song’s inspiration, the music of John Coltrane. Who better to draw inspiration from.
Well, you’ll also find songs on the album inspired by the Duke, the Count, cool master Mulligan, Mingus, McCoy Tyner and others.
The Michael Treni Big Band has given us a kind of orchestral history of American jazz as tied to the blues. Complete with sort of a textbook. Treni calls the work a Suite in 10 Parts and it earns that conceit.
It’s hard enough to do a single quality work in tribute to the music of one of the greats. More than a half dozen is heady stuff. And to interweave jazz with its base the blues as the greats did. Whew.
But don’t be put off by the album’s lofty ambition. The music is just delicious. The high points? I’m sure to omit several but here’s a short list:
Treni himself taking the trombone lead on “Minor Blues.”
Pianists Jim Ridl (who I think channels Bill Evans on the album’s opener) and Charles Blensig all over the place.
Chris Persad’s trumpet on “BQE Blues”.
And of course Bergonzi and Hendrix on “Summer Blues.”
So what are we to make of the title? In his “textbook,” Treni gives us three choices that you can read for yourself. I’ll venture a two-part fourth.
That jazz should be part of popular culture and not retire to academia and that the blues was part of pop music before white folks much even knew it. White audiences didn’t get to hear much real blues because of Jim Crow, racist radio and well, cut to the chase, prejudice, which is just another word for stupidity.
It’s the real reason Elvis was so important. He pushed opened a door that couldn’t then be fully closed again. Even though his art was eventually co-opted to pop, often junk pop, the base in the blues could not be denied.
A decade or so later, artists like the Stones and Hendrix and Paul Butterfield kicked that door wide open. Even the originals came sliding through, some before they could die.
Large bands are enjoying a renaissance in various forms and shapes these days. I just wish my Dad were here for it. He’d be listening for the influence of the big swing bands like Tommy Dorsey’s and Glenn Miller’s. That’s out there, too, except that there can’t be another Sinatra.
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Currently available only digitally, Hadiza Dockery’s LP Chapter 4 is a lot like a sample box of real good chocolates. Different flavors. Different tastes. Different moods.
There’s a Carol King reminder on “Too Long” which Hadiza says in her notes was intended to be 1970s soft rock. Mission accomplished.
There’s a little bossa nova on “The Other Voice” where guitarist Steve Bargonetti makes his best contribution on acoustic. His electric playing elsewhere sounds like a derivative only house guitarist.
In fact, that’s a problem I have with this short album. The musicians were assembled. It’s not “her” band. While assembly for studio work sometimes works, it doesn’t completely here.
In fact, even on a strong bluesy number like “Somebody Better,” Hadiza seems a bit restrained, contained. Is it the band? Is it the studio?
I was going to suggest another producer before I saw that she produced it herself. Well, artists do like control. . .
Maybe a concert album. She is reputed to be unbridled and powerful in concert. I haven’t seen her. Would like to.
This is a big voice. Big as in great tonality, diction, phrasing. All the elements are there.
On “Off the Grid” they come up, they rock out. There’s power, complexity, nifty shifts.
She needs to move further off the grid. And get her own band. And make them hers. And record with them. And maybe a producer who isn’t her, at least in second chair to shake her head when it’s not quite right.
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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.