Taking a fresh look at iconic jazz compositions as well as unexpected country and folk material, Five Plus Six imbues its debut recording, Such Sweet Thunder, with panache and surprise. Led by Knoxville Jazz Orchestra founder and director Vance Thompson, the new eleven-piece band fuses Thompson's core quintet with six additional horns, expanding the sonic potential of the original outfit while also providing some of Knoxville's deserving young musicians a chance to perform in an exceptional large ensemble. By taking on classic work by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Thelonious Monk, and then blending such left field gems as Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" and the Appalachian folk tune, "He's Gone Away" into the mix, Thompson is able to display his masterful gift for imaginative arranging and deft ability to maneuver a crack ensemble.
The heart of Five Plus Six is a practiced quintet that has been working steadily for more than a year under the name The Marble City Five featuring Thompson on trumpet with tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy, pianist Keith Brown (youngest son of pianist Donald Brown), bassist Taylor Coker and drummer Nolan Nevels. As Thompson began thinking about recording the quintet, the idea of expanding the scope of the band's sound suddenly merged with the notion of including some of the city's outstanding younger musicians. The additional horn players perform with a healthy dose of youthful vigor adding excitement as well as sparkling tonal color.
Given that the album's title references Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's honored 1957 suite, Five Plus Six's Such Sweet Thunder trains a deserved spotlight on Ellington and Strayhorn jewels. In the band's hands "Such Sweet Thunder" moves to both an Afro-Cuban and traditional swing beat, while "Prelude to a Kiss" (arranged by pianist Brown) sets the tune's original melody against modern harmonies and a straight-eighth groove. Brown also replaces his piano with Fender Rhodes to add extra spice. Thompson's arrangement of Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm" has become one of the quintet's signature numbers. His treatment follows the basic structure of the original, with harmonic substitutions and a new time signature added for variety. The arrangement of Strayhorn's "Isfahan" allows the band to demonstrate its fondness for the blues and features a Thad Jones-esque section for trombone, tenor and bass along with gripping solos by Tardy, Thompson and Brown. Thelonious Monk is honored by way of original arrangements of "Pannonica," which bursts with double time momentum, and "Ugly Beauty" with its hint of Afro-Cuban flavor accented by muted effects in the brass and a compelling soli section for flugelhorn and baritone saxophone. Keith Brown also contributed an unusual orchestration of Monk's "Four in One" based on an arrangement by his father, the former Jazz Messenger and famed composer/pianist Donald Brown. Keith's chart places Monk's melody over a funky bass and drum groove for delightful effect.
More memorable surprises come with the arresting arrangements of "Little Sparrow," a tune by East Tennessee native Dolly Parton, and the Appalachian folk standard, "He's Gone Away." Thompson first heard "Little Sparrow" on a recording by Bettye LaVette, on which the singer altered the original feel of Parton's performance yet conjured up her own stunningly personal interpretation. "When I looked up Dolly's original version of the song, I found that it had been recorded in Knoxville at a studio that I'd done some work in," Thompson recalls. "I fell in love with the simplicity of her original version of the song, but Bettye LaVette's completely different take on the tune made me realize that it could be taken in a lot of different directions without losing its power. I was inspired to try my hand at my own version of the song, and it has since become one of my favorite things to play. Audiences seem to like it too, whether they know it's a Dolly Parton original or not." Another tune from outside of the jazz repertoire, "He's Gone Away" is a traditional Appalachian folk song that came to Thompson's attention through a beautiful recording by bassist Charlie Haden on his roots music project, Ramblin' Boy. While Thompson's arrangement does expand upon the tune's simple harmonic structure at times, the song's poignant message of love and loss is left undisturbed.
Since founding the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra in August of 1999, Thompson has had plenty of opportunity to hone his big band arranging chops. The KJO (which Jack Bowers of All About Jazz called "a local ensemble with world-class talent") performs frequent concerts, features world -renowned guest artists and has released several acclaimed recordings of which the All Music Guide's Scott Yanow has written, "Listeners who favor modern big bands will find much to savor during these flawless performances."