04/06/2003 10:50a ET
John Nelson - Reviewer
Beginning with fits and starts in the 1920s, Big Band reached the height of its popularity in the late 1930s to mid-1940s, and the biggest of the Big Bands included those run by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman. In recent years, there has been a faddish revival of old music styles including Lounge and Bachelor Pad [sometimes called “Cool” (definitely not to be confused with Cool Jazz) and “Retro”, respectively nowadays], and a huge surge of interest in Swing era music made popular by the Big Bands--“Swing” deriving it’s name, I believe, from Duke’s monster hit “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing).”
The Cincinnati Pops, led by Erich Kunzel, frequently devote entire CDs to serious classical music that bear a common theme, but perhaps what the Pops is most famous for is their string of commercially, very successful albums of crossover appeal. Last year saw the release of the albums “Scary Music” and “Celtic Spectacular” albums. In this same vein of popular crossover comes 2003’s exciting “Got Swing!”, which provides orchestral arrangements of Big Band standards. Kunzel and the Pops (along with the orchestra’s rhythm section) step out on their own and also team up on several tracks with The Manhattan Transfer, Janis Siegel (stepping out from the Transfer on one track), or John Pizzarelli to recreate the Big Band sound.
It’s hard to know where to start with the superlatives. The groups are on top of their games with the orchestra bringing out the best in the featured stars. Kunzel and the Pops are well within the idiom, playing the Big Band style as if it comes naturally to them; apparently it does. They capture the Big Band feel of “String of Pearls” (a personal favorite) without bleeding into full orchestral sound. The same can be said of their rendition of “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” “Blues in the Night” gets the brassy, sultry play it deserves. If “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” doesn’t get the white-hot treatment that it got on Sony’s (originally Columbia’s) “First Time! The Duke Meets the Count” it doesn’t suffer for it: you can still tap your toes to it till they sweat. John Pizzarelli, son of jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, sings a couple of classic tracks: Avalon and Straighten Up and Fly Right, as if he wrote them. Years ago, I didn’t really care for Pizzarelli’s stylings or maybe it was his voice, but something is different here. He massages the songs with great vocal know-how and guitar-playing agility. As good as his singing is, his guitar work is clean and fast, sounding effortless (particularly on Avalon). Whether you like the stylings of The Manhattan Transfer or not is up to you, dear reader, but their vocalizing and vocalese is pitch, tempo, and genre perfect. The Transfer serve up “Sugar (That Sugar Bay O’ Mine),” “Skyliner,” “Clouds,” an adaptation of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” and knock “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” out of the ballpark. Janis Siegel comes to the fore on “I’ll Be Seeing You” to give us a slow dance, delivering a beautiful, heartfelt touch to the tearjerker that gets tender accompaniment from the Pops. After a good night out, Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops send us home with the good night song “Sweet Georgia Brown.” A hot ending to a hot disc. The cardinal rule in music is to leave ‘em begging for more. This disc loves ‘em and leaves ‘em begging.
All three of the available mixes--CD, SACD two-channel stereo, and SACD surround--benefit from highly polished but tasteful mixing. The CD version sounds quite good with excellent mixing and production. However, once I switched to the SACD two-channel mix, the difference was immediately noticeable. For instance, the opening track, “String of Pearls,” greatly benefits from the DSD processing and right away the sound field is audibly wider and deeper and the music sounds much more three dimensional than the CD mix. The sound on the stereo SACD mix blooms before your ears. This is not to take away from the CD mix. CD just isn’t going to match SACD under normal circumstances, and this is readily apparent here. The surround sound SACD mix provides limited response from the surround channels with little more than a quiet echo of the orchestra. However, the vocals have an immediacy and intimacy, delivered through the center channel, that made me think I was in the studio. This is particularly true for the numbers that Pizzarelli played on.. I found myself listening to the SACD two-channel mix just as often as the surround mix. The music is fun and the musicians seem to have enjoyed it too. There’s plenty of hard blowing yet the orchestra knows when to rein it in too, under Kunzel’s masterful direction. This kind of music is so adaptable and is made even more so by the superb musicians and vocalists. I could envision throwing this disc on for a cocktail party or while just preparing dinner.
Whether dancing or doing the dishes, if you listen to this disc you’ve got to be doing something! This isn’t music to sit to, but music to groove to. So what if this is your Mom and Dad’s music (or your Grandparents’, for that matter)? Music this well executed and recorded can (and should) be enjoyed by everybody. Telarc has done an outstanding job, as usual, of getting the right mix with the appropriate sound balance and ending up with music that is clear and cleanand a joy to hear.
Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra have over 50 recordings listed at the Telarc website. That’s an exceptional track record, and a lot of albums to still be in print. A true testament to their Popularity.
Copyright © 2002-2003 Matthew Rowe. All rights reserved.
Kunzel & Cincinnati Pops Orchestra
Released: February 18, 2003