Swinging the Planet
Although it lies at the foundation of jazz, the term "swing" consistently resists definition. Most people think of swing as a rhythmic phenomenon, the way a steady tempo juxtaposes against actual durations and accents a musician plays against that fixed pulse. Of course, that's only one facet of the magic. Swing relies on the individual musician's ability to propel each note with timbre, intonation, attack or vibrato. And to really make it work, each player must do all that in concert with the rest of the band. Swing also refers to a particular era in the history of jazz, starting in the 1930s and continuing through World War Two. The swinging big bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Fletcher Henderson, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman were dance bands first and foremost. But that was then and this is now and in the Nineties, big bands play primarily for a listening audience. Their crowds want to hear the sections swing and the soloists soar--they're not there to dance. As you might expect, the Gap Mangione Big Band can swing with the best of them. As a Nineties aggregation, however, the orchestra's varied repertoire satisfies many tastes and appears designed mainly to entertain a sophisticated jazz audience. These fans appreciate improvisation. They sway to the Latin rhythms. They dig the be bop edge. The opening cut of Planet Gap (Cafe Records) offers a glimpse of swing's secret as the 19-piece band merrily swings a normally-non-swinging standard, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." From there, it's off to the races as Gap Mangione--the consummate pianist, bandleader and arranger--stakes claim to a wide swath of jazz territory on these 12 terrific tracks. "Groovin' for Nat" kicks off with Mangione's piano giving way to Andy Weinzler's boppish tenor sax and Jeff Jarvis' toneful trumpet before the bandleader's sweeter keyboard takes it home. Mangione's arrangement of Gerry Mulligan's 1953 composition "Bernie's Tune" incorporates two of his most prevalent preferences: be bop stylings and Latin rhythms. Longtime Mangione sideman Gerry Niewood brightens "Bernie" with a fanciful flute solo and later blows a declarative baritone sax on Horace Silver's be bop standard, "Doodlin.'" Mangione balances the bop with several ballads, masterfully arranged as the sections lay down a powerful bed from which the soloists rise and stretch out, comfortably embracing the slow tempos. This approach is pleasingly evident on Thelonius Monk's classic "'Round Midnight," featuring Pat LaBarbera on tenor, Bob Kalwas on bass trombone and Jarvis on flugelhorn. Mangione co-arranged "Coat Check Cathy" with its composer Tim Torrance, and saxophones scream excitedly through the 9-and-a-half-minute track as the reeds lead the way to "Cathy's" dark charms. Sensual singer Cindy Miller vocalizes Mangione's original song, "My Favorite Dream," which, the lyrics indicate, is a reverie "equal parts of love and music." The 8-and-a-half minute arrangement also mirrors nocturnal musings, shifting from a straight ballad into another Caribbean-influenced opus propelled by Dan Schmitt's guitar and Weinzler's tenor. Except for "The Gap Theme," an r'n'b-like break tune which concludes the set, Mangione has grouped his own numbers -- and one written by his famous brother Chuck -- in the middle of the disc. Gap's "Favorite Dream" is followed by Chuck's "Rochester, My Sweet Home," a lovely instrumental sparked by Gap's electric piano, complemented by elegantly-stated section lines and Weinzler's reflective soprano sax. "Calypso for Janet," dedicated to the bandleader's beloved wife, takes the orchestra on another island foray with a percussion and horn-driven arrangement that Tito Puente would envy. Then it's back to bop with Charlie Parker's "Au Privave." The rhythm section -- drummer Steve Gadd and bassist John Patitucci -- shines here, along with brassman Jarvis, who often seems to echo Chuck Mangione's distinctive horn style, bittersweet and always swinging. Produced by Gap Mangione and recorded by engineer Larry Swist at Trackmaster Audio in Buffalo, Planet Gap's overall sound shimmers with a bright, trebly quality that should make this disc a favorite of jazz radio programmers across the country. Russ Tarby is Senior Editor covering books and music for the Syracuse New Times in upstate New York. His book reviews won First Place for Best Arts Criticism in the under 55,000 circulation category of the 1997 Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Editorial Awards.