Thursday, March 13, 2014


A superficial artist clings to the whims of fashion; a genuine artist follows his heart. By staying true to and growing from his original inspirations, the bandleader, composer, arranger, trombonist and vocalist Pete McGuinness has produced a present day masterwork of large ensemble jazz. On Strength In Numbers, the second release from the Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra (fourth as a leader for Pete), the leader channels the swinging big bands and iconic modern arrangers that loom large in both the jazz tradition and in his personal pantheon, molding his influences into vibrant, highly personal musical statements. Reconvening a large ensemble that he has led since 2006, McGuinness (a 2008 Grammy finalist for his arrangement of Charlie Chapin's immortal "Smile") enlists a full contingent of top tier NYC players including saxophonist Dave Pietro, trumpeter Bill Mobley and pianist Mike Holober to bring to life original charts whose echoes of Basie, Ellington, Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans reinforce McGuinness' inventive spins on what continues to be a vital musical idiom.

"I think of Strength In Numbers as both a next step as well as a return to my roots, " McGuinness says. "I'm a melodist who grew up loving the great post-swing era big bands onward. With a great band of highly experienced and seasoned NYC jazz players, I can now straddle the old and the new, keeping one foot in what I've always loved of genre and one foot striding forward. As long as a composer can write from their own experience, draw confidence from their past while looking forward, and never get so caught up in new effects as to have an agenda, then work that is truly honest-sounding, engaging, and personal can come through. That's at least what I strive for."

In contrast to McGuinness's third album as a leader, the 2013 release, Voice Like a Horn  (which featured a compact small group and focused on his award-winning skills as a jazz vocalist), Strength In Numbers highlights a full force big band, while also finding room for two spotlighted McGuinness vocal features on the tender standards "What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?" and "You Don't Know What Love Is," the latter also featuring his expert scatting and demonstrating Pete's admiration for the vocal style of the late Chet Baker, whom he has often been compared with. Swinging charts ("The Send-Off," a sparkling tribute to the acclaimed arranger Bob Brookmeyer, with whom McGuinness studied; "The Swagger," and "Nasty Blues," a tasty nod to Count Basie and Thad Jones) sidle up to more introspective works ("Spellbound," a more latin style number inspired by the rich harmonies of Debussy and Billy Strayhorn; "Trixie's Little Girl," a loving tribute to McGuinness' late mother, and "Bittersweet," the latter two featuring the leader's exquisite trombone statements.)  Of special interest is "Beautiful Dreamer" - Stephen Foster's archetypal gem of 19th century Americana. This McGuinness arrangement originally commissioned by the Westchester Jazz Orchestra recasts the timeless song as a high-energy samba with gleaming solos by Dave Pietro on soprano sax and Mike Holober on piano, ending in a charming duet by the two featured soloists based on Foster's original 1865 piano arrangement.  Bolstered by Pete's two vocal and trombone features, as well as all of his original arrangements presented, the album's variety provides a first rate display of McGuinness as a polymath talent, as well as showcasing the skill of his outstanding band, an ensemble that shares the leader's wholehearted embrace of the joys of big band music.

"With only some minor changes, the members of the PMJO have been with me since the beginning," McGuinness says. "The band is made up of musical associates who have paid dues with me in many of the same bands together, several of who have been friends for decades. For example, I've known and played with our drummer Scott Neumann, whose playing I always think about whenever I compose or arrange for the band, for some 26 years now. You can hear that familiarity in the entire ensemble sound too. We've also been playing the charts that ended up on this album for several years now as well. When the time was right to record, we were ready."

Pete McGuinness has appeared on over forty recordings, including three previous releases as a leader: First Flight (Summit) with the Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra which earned 4-stars in DownBeat, Voice Like a Horn (Summit) and Sliding In (Kokopelli). He earned a 2008 Grammy nomination for his arrangement of "Smile" (which appeared on First Flight) and was the first prizewinner of the 2010 Jazzmobile Vocal Competition (judged by the late Dr. Billy Taylor and Barry Harris). A New York resident since 1987, McGuinness studied with Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam at the prestigious BMI Jazz Composers Workshop and has performed in the big bands of such acclaimed leaders as Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Heath (featured as a vocalist as well) and Maria Schneider, appearing on her Grammy-winning album, Concert In the Garden. Actively involved in music education both throughout the United States and Europe, McGuinness is currently the Assistant Professor of Jazz Arranging at William Paterson University.

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