The Dean Pratt Big Band’s first CD, Groovy Encounters, is currently sold out, but we’ve included a couple of partial tracks from it, and our second CD (see below) for you to listen to here.
16 Men & A Chick Singer Swingin’: Pratt Brothers Big Band Featuring Roberta Gambarini
Big Brother Remarks upon the Emperors’ Lack of Clothes . . .
“As I sit down to scribble these notes, I see that it is just about eight years to the day since the Pratt Brothers Big Band went into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ to record Groovy Encounters. How time flies when you’re having fun—even if it’s in a musical vacuum. In the past decade, Big Bands have definitely not made a comeback. Still, musicians who love to play this music and fans, such as you, who love to listen to it still exist. Though we may be few in number we are, nevertheless, determined to keep this great tradition alive; to keep the Emperor clothed in purple and gold, not rags. It’s just that we’re surrounded by charlatans, these days, poseurs, fakes—totally naked ‘Emperors and Empresses of Jazz’—who are touted to one and all as ‘the next Ella,’ ‘the next Frank,’ ‘the next Dizzy,’ ‘the next Miles,’ when they should just be run out of town on the next rail for impersonating jazz musicians. They are anything but. Strangely enough, though, it’s not these jazz quacks themselves who are tooting their own out-of-tune horns. It’s the big music business guys, the managers, the producers. You know who they are. Their names appear on every new young, hot thing’s new, dull CD. Yawwwwn.
“Not to go off on a rant here (as the inimitable Dennis Miller would phrase it), but the people running this business of ours have, for the most part, seemingly taken leave of their senses, and foremost among the five, hearing. These old guys are really in the business now of ‘discovering’ the next great, young, sexy, young, awesome, young…and, most importantly, young new talent. Like (not-so) wise men on camels, this self ordained group of producers, record executives, marketing directors and, yes, even some disc jockeys and music critics, have been doing their best to obscure any real talent out here, those few brave souls singing and jamming in the wilderness who are trying their damndest to keep alive the great legacy of our music. If there’s a star in the East, these guys will miss it. The names Ellington, Basie, Miles, Ella, Sarah, Carmen and Billie Holiday are bandied around today by the tone-deaf wise guys to describe their mostly teen-aged discoveries. For the life of me, I don’t have a clue as to what these folks’ qualifications or musical expertise might be—discoverers and discoveries, alike—but, in comparing Ellas to oranges, and apples to Ellingtons, they have all but obliterated the meaning of the legacy left us by our honest-to-God legendary artists. For much of the listening public and, certainly, for the majority of record executives (who are either scared of losing their jobs or too young ever to have actually heard Billie Holiday or Count Basie), what constitutes good jazz and good jazz singing corresponds to whichever juvenile artist sold the most records last quarter.
“I have seen the new crop of Jazz Emperors and the Empresses, and they have no clothes.
“OK, I admit that taste in music is relative. What swings for one puts another to sleep. But what, in my humble opinion, is not relative, and never will be, is bad time, bad phrasing, bad tone and bad pitch. No amount of background strings and artful lighting is going to morph Tiny Tim into Miles Davis. Funny, most of us used to be able to hear the difference between the two, and weren’t afraid to admit it. Well enough, for now. Meanwhile, all my deepest thanks go out to those few, brave, time-perfect and in-tune souls who, ignoring mainstream, heavily subsidized trends, continue to create the music we all used to love so deeply–real jazz produced by the fully clothed Emperors and Empresses of Jazz. But hey, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.”
“As on the first Dean Pratt Big Band CD, Groovy Encounters, we begin with an Ernie Wilkins arrangement; this time, an original composition. Our tribute to Ernie, Clark Terry and Count Basie, it gets us off to a swinging start. The chart actually comprises two Wilkins arrangements of the same tune , with different backgrounds and ensembles. I thought, for our band, it would be a good idea to incorporate the two. I’m not sure which bandleader Ernie first wrote this chart, but it was titled ‘Big Bad Band’ for Clark, and “Basie Power” for the Count. I’ve titled our own version ‘Big Bad Basie,’ and the first soloist is Ronnie Mathews. Backed by Michael Pratt’s drums and Chip Jackson’s bass, Ronnie leads through ten outstanding choruses, demonstrating why he is still one of the premier pianists working today. Setting up the band’s first entrance perfectly, Ronnie takes two more choruses, and then it’s my turn to interact with the band a bit before playing a few choruses with just the rhythm section. A great big band tradition is up next, the tenor battle, magnificently carried out by Mike Karn and Willie Williams, who take four choruses each, trade choruses for another four and, eventually, take fours with the band for three more choruses. They light the way for Ernie’s first shout and Michael’s drum solo. (If you listen carefully, you can hear Michael–as our friend and mentor Buddy Rich used to do–cue in the final shout chorus with his four-bar count off. Michael I couldn’t do it without you!) The chart ends with Ronnie’s nod to the Count and one of those nice big chords topped off by Joe Mosello’s lead trumpet.
“Rich Shemaria’s beautiful arrangement of ‘Skylark’ will introduce you to our featured vocalist, the inimitable Roberta Gambarini. Born in Torino, Italy, and brought up by a jazz-loving family, Roberta began listening to jazz as a child and, by age 17, was performing in jazz clubs around northern Italy. I first heard Roberta back in 1998, when she was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk vocal competition. I knew, from the first moment I heard her, that this was the voice of the new millennium. As you will hear throughout her cuts on this album, Roberta can do it all. She swings, has impeccable time, possesses an instrument of lyrical beauty, and scats not only with originality but makes the changes, too. I call hers ‘The Real Voice of an Angel.’ Mark Phaneuf’s flute is heard at the top and Alan Gauvin’s lovely alto solo follows Roberta’s vocal, complementing her and Rich’s chart with just the right touches. The a cappella vocal bit was Roberta’s idea, and there aren’t many singers today who could pull this off so beautifully. A gorgeous treatment of this Hoagy Carmichael classic!
“Since we began planning this album, I had been looking for a chart to feature three of the finest trombonists any leader could wish for. Our bass trombonist, Wayne Coniglio, heard the call and his arrangement of Frank Wess’s composition, ‘Water Jug,’ was just what I was looking for. The Promethean Scott Whitfield leads his section on Frank’s head, continuing with two choruses on the 32-bar theme. He’s followed by Rick Stepton, my old Buddy Rich band mate, for two, and then the saxophone section has a groovy chorus led by Alan Gauvin, who’s been leading sax sections with that unique and commanding sound of his for over 35 years. It’s been my privilege to have been on the stand with him for most of that time. The arranger solos next and, as you will hear, there is no better jazz bass trombonist working today than Wayne Coniglio. The concluding high note dual between Scott Whitfield and Joe Mosello was my idea, inspired by Stan Kenton’s version of ‘Machito.’ I figured if you’ve got it, flaunt it, and these guys have it.
“The next arrangement is a tour de force for the band and Roberta. The Dizzy Gillespie recording of the original composition by Tom McIntosh entitled ‘The Cup Bearers’ was always a favorite of mine and, coincidentally, also a favorite of Roberta’s. My friend Meredith D’Ambrosio had put lyrics to the tune and thus the new song, ‘Cup Of Life,’ was born, giving Roberta and me the opportunity to record the song for you here. Michael Abene was our choice for the arranger, so we all met to work out a plan for the score. Michael is one of our truly amazing talents, and I am honored to call him a friend. His arrangements for the Maynard Ferguson band of the 1960’s have always been some of my favorite big band charts, and this amazing arrangement of “Cup Of Life” is no exception. Truly a suite for jazz band and voice, the first section of the theme is semi-rubato, with the reeds doubling flutes and clarinets behind Roberta’s beautiful rendering of the lyric. A short interlude announces the beginning of the second and straight ahead section of the piece. Roberta has the spotlight again with a swinging reading of the lyric, this time followed by a terrific scat chorus that would have put a smile on Dizzy’s face. My solo follows, again with a harmon mute, leading to another short interlude into the vocalese section. Michael wrote a wild shout for Roberta, trumpet, soprano and tenor in unison and, though it is a remarkable vocal achievement, I have to tell you it is just another day’s work for Roberta Gambarini. Her talent knows no bounds. Wayne Coniglio’s bass trombone introduces a vamp designed for a little drum work from my brother, then comes a reprise of the lyric from Roberta, ending with one of Michael’s signature riffs topped off by a concert high C from the lead singer–and this little masterpiece comes to an end. (Mike Abene, you’re a genius.)
“Hank Mobley’s ‘Old World New Imports’ is up next. The original Hank Mobley Blue Note recording of this composition, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, has always been a favorite of mine, and I asked Rich Shemaria to make this arrangement for us and what an arrangement it is. I wanted a feature for our baritone saxophonist, Dave Schumacher, Ronnie Mathews and Chip Jackson. Hank’s tune provided the perfect vehicle. My brother’s high hat cymbals set the tempo and then Dave and I state Hank’s cute little head. Ronnie is up first for three choruses and then Dave and I take three. Rich’s wild sax soli leads into a truly incredible solo from Chip Jackson. Not only is his solo amazing, but check out how he sets up the band’s entrance. It just doesn’t get any better than this. A reprise of the head, some exchanges with little brother and the band, an F# from Joe Mosello, and we’re done.
“The next Ernie Wilkins chart, ‘Falling In Love With Love,’ is from our dance book and, initially, I had not meant to put it on this album. But the band was so knocked out by it every time they played it that they wouldn’t hear of my not recording it. Of course, my arm doesn’t have to be twisted too hard to get me to record anything by Ernie. Don Sickler has a short solo on trumpet and then our bass trombonist, Wayne Coniglio, does it again. Who said bass trombonists don’t play jazz? Ronnie Matthews has some fun with the ensemble before the fine.
“Don Sickler, the publisher of Kenny Dorham’s ballad, ‘Fair Weather,\’ hipped me to this beautiful tune. Not surprisingly, Roberta Gambarini had this song in her repertoire as well and, when I caught her performing it on a gig with Don at the Jazz Standard here in New York, I knew we had to record it. Hearing that voice sing this melody was a no- brainer for me, and I asked Roberta if she would do a version for us with the big band. She agreed, and we both thought Mike Abene would again be perfect for the arrangement. As usual, he turns in a masterful tone poem on Kenny’s tune. Mike Karn, saxophonist extraordinaire, plays an outstanding solo here, creating just the right mood over Mike Abene’s rich and lush voicings. And Roberta, well here, hers is the voice of an angel.
“On our last album, we premiered a couple of charts–one by Chico O’Farrill and another by Ernie Wilkins–that had been written for the Basie band but never recorded. This time out, we ‘introduce’ an arrangement by Don Piestrup of ‘When Your Lover Has Gone,’ written for Buddy Rich’s band back in the 1960’s. Buddy did play this chart quite often back then but, for some reason, it never made it onto any recordings. A typically swinging chart from Don, it opens with Brother Michael’s a la Buddy Rich high hat intro and four-bar count off. It was deja vu for Mike and me recording this and it brought back some terrific memories of our tenure with Buddy. Solos are by Mark Phaneuf on alto, Rick Stepton on trombone, and Willie Williams on tenor.
“Roberta picked ‘East Of The Sun’ for her final offering on this album, she and I sketched out how we wanted the arrangement to go, and then I asked Rich Shemaria again to do the honors. Rich had about two weeks to write both this and ‘Skylark’ for us, and he came through with flying colors. Roberta wanted to sing the first chorus with just the bass, and so she and Chip make some magic here. You don’t get this kind of interaction and empathy by overdubbing, folks and, throughout the date, Roberta sang live with the band and it made all the difference in the world. The saxes enter behind Roberta’s second chorus with Rich’s chart giving a nod to another great arranger, Thad Jones. I get to trade with the band for a chorus, and then it’s all Roberta. Dig her a cappella tribute to Ella on the ending. (Roby, you’re the greatest.)
“Basie/Wilkins started us off and Basie/Wilkins bring us to a close. Ernie’s title ‘Sixteen Men Swinging” almost says it all but, today, since we want to be a little more politically correct, we’ve titled our album “Sixteen Men & A Chick Singer Swingin’.’ Hey, I said a ‘little’ more politically correct. I can’t think of a better way to end this excursion in modern music than to ‘swing just a little bit,’ all 17 of us. Solos are by Mike Karn on tenor, Scott Whitfield on trombone, and the Pratt brothers.
“To all of the members of the band, and to Roberta Gambarini, I say sincerely, that it has always been, and always will be, an honor for me to be in the same room with you. You have made my dreams a reality once again.
“To Tom Swift, our recording engineer, who saved us in the studio so many times, your terrific ear and musicianship qualify you to be ‘The 17th Man Swingin’.’ This project could not have been made without your hard work, talent and generosity, and I look forward to doing it again, long before another eight years go by.
“To my ophthalmologist, Dr. Robert Ritch (as well as Kay, Alan, and the whole staff at Glaucoma Associates of New York); to Mike’s and my parents, Rosalie and Bob; to my sister, Chris, and our other brother, Steven; thanks for all of your love and support. To Buddy Rich, for giving my brother and me a taste of what it’s like to work with not only a genius but the swingin’est and grooviest cat around, undying thanks. And last but far from least, to my darling Elizabeth, who lights up my world each day in more ways than I could ever find space for here, my thanks as well.
“To all of you—our fans and lovers of big band music—till next time, keep the faith and, above all, keep swingin’.”