La Reserve Bandstand
Somehow, we didn’t cover Steven Feifke’s 2023 Grammy-winning large ensemble album with Bijon Watson, and the Generation Gap Orchestra so we’re in play for this follow-up, Catalyst where Feifke does all the heavy lifting as pianist, composer, arrange, orchestrator, bandleader, and producer.
Feifke became the youngest ever GRAMMY winner for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, sharing company with greats like Quincy Jones and Henry Mancini. His trajectory is already steep, having released six albums in two years. Rather remarkably, his large ensemble only sees two returning from the previous effort, reedist Alexa Tarantino and bassist Dan Chmielinski. While not as studded with “name” musicians, its energy rivals its predecessor. Catalyst does have vocal tracks. Led by Martina DeSilva and Bryan Carter and 21 musicians in the credits. Some of the more recognizable names are trumpeter Benny Benack III who has his own album due next week, trumpeter John Lake who we covered on these pages, trombonist Jennifer Wharton, drummer Jimmy Macbride, and guitarist Alex Wintz.
Opening track “The Promised Land” relates directly to Israel but the theme has universal application as Feifke captures the differences that can occur in real life “while showing that we are all not so different after all.” This is a vibrant, cinematic-like piece with mostly robust ensemble work as Feifke is the only major soloist. The Van Heusen/Burke standard “It Could Happen to You” is a feature for the versatile, charming entertainer Benack III, a close friend of Feifke’s, who also sings, and engages in vocalese in the mid-section, where Feifke harmonized the parts for the saxophones. If you’re not familiar with Benack’s III “Sinatra-like” presence, this will provide solid evidence.. Guest tenorist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown swings hard on Benny Golson’s oft-covered “Stablemates,” which also has vigorous interplay between drummer Carter and bassist Chmielinski. The Feifke original, “Ali Deli’ Angelo” is Italian for “Angel Wings.” Originally a duo piece, he expanded it for big band with solos from altoist Tarantino and himself. The three separate sections of the piece coalesce for a rousing, triumphant finale. The title track centers around the idea that “one spark can set the whole thing ablaze.” Trumpeter Lake may well be that spark with his fiery solo, which in turn inspires a dialogue between charged altoist Andrew Gould and drummer Carter.
The first vocal track is the well-worn “I Cover the Waterfront,” with the full ensemble framing DeSliva’s nuanced take. DeSilva returns for “My Foolish Heart” with more company this time as Carter also sings, Tarantino delivers a bluesy solo, and drummer Macbride takes an inventive turn. These two, especially the latter, shed light on Feifke’s arranging skills, as he moves away from the traditional ballad, treating it instead as a samba, replete with multiple flutes.
Not surprisingly, Feifke is inspired by the Thad Jones- Mel Lewis big band approach to arrangements, taking their cue for Oscare Pettiford’s “Tricotism” which features bassist Chmielinski, guitarist Wintz who had been relatively quiet since the opener, and trombonist Jeffrey Miller. “Patience’s Promise” is an abridged title of “Patience’s Promise Is a Lie” and features Benack III again, this time on a fluid trumpet foray, along with Feifke as soloists in one that builds from a quiet beginning to a brassy, declarative end. By far, at 12 minutes, the closing “Kingpin” is the lengthiest piece and allows Gould and fellow reedist Lucas Pino to stretch out along with drummer Carter and guitarist Wintz. The music surges and recedes, presaging an explosive climax that never occurs, with Feifke posing a lingering like question instead.
The Grammy Award is proof enough of Feifke’s abundant skills. Catalyst will only further his growing reputation, especially as an arranger.
- Jim Hynes
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