Duke Ellington famously insisted that he never wrote music for instruments, but tailored each piece for the particular individuals in his band. After nearly ten years together with a remarkably stable line-up featuring some of the most gifted musicians on the New York City jazz scene, the Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra offers bandleader, composer and trombonist Scott Reeves a similar opportunity. The big band's thrilling second album, Without a Trace, showcases the results with a decade-spanning repertoire drawing from both original compositions and bold new arrangements of jazz standards.
Due out March 16, 2018 from Origin Records, Without a Trace draws on the influences of great big band composer/arrangers from Ellington and Gil Evans to Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and Jim McNeely. Reeves spent years writing for the likes of Dave Liebman's Big Band, the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, Bill Mobley's Smoke Big Band, and the BMI Jazz Composers Orchestra before setting out on his own in 2008. Seeing the divide between swing traditionalists and more harmonically inventive modernists, Reeves decided to cull the best from both worlds, devising inventive harmonic progressions but never letting go of the vigorous swing that makes large ensemble music so exciting.
"I've had people describe my band as sounding like 'swinging dissonance'," Reeves says with a laugh. "A lot of my music is overtly swinging in the tradition of big band jazz, but in the majority of my work I'm trying to get away from the typical harmonic palette."
It helps when bridging such a stylistic gulf to be supported by some of the most talented and sought-after musicians in modern jazz, and Reeves can count many of them as regular band members for the whole of the 17-piece Orchestra's existence. The line-up on Without a Trace includes saxophonists Steve Wilson, Tim Armacost, Vito Chiavuzzo, Rob Middleton, Jay Brandford and Terry Goss; trumpeters Seneca Black, Nathan Eklund, Chris Rogers, Bill Mobley and Andy Gravish; trombonists Tim Sessions, Matt McDonald, Matt Haviland and Max Siegel; pianist Jim Ridl, vibraphonist Dave Ellson, bassist Todd Coolman, and drummer Andy Watson. Stunning vocalist Carolyn Leonhart, on a break from her busy touring schedule with Steely Dan, guests on the lovely title tune.
Having been able to get know his musicians' sounds so intimately over the years, Reeves has become adept at styling his arrangements to spotlight their particular talents. Not that there's much that a virtuoso like Steve Wilson - an in-demand guest soloist for most bands, but regular lead alto with Reeves' Orchestra - couldn't handle. Wilson's fiery yet controlled voice drove Reeves' take on Kurt Weill's classic "Speak Low," which begins with a nod to Bill Evans' classic rendition from his New Jazz Conceptions album before surging along on an Afro-Cuban beat. Trumpeter Chris Rogers and drummer Andy Watson follow with their own blistering solos.
Leonhart's elegant turn on Reeves' own "Without a Trace" follows. Where the orchestra's debut, Portraits and Places, featured wordless vocals as a coloristic element, here Reeves pens lyrics to craft a love song that matches the emotion and drama of some of the Songbook standards in his repertoire. Leonhart's subtle grace belies the tune's angular melody, which combine to conjure a uniquely dark-tinged atmosphere for the song. The familiar "All or Nothing at All" is completely reimagined in Reeves' handling, with an Ahmad Jamal-inspired groove and a taste of John Coltrane's immortal "Giant Steps," giving the timeless tune a feeling unmoored from any particular era.
"I always try to transform a song in some way when I do an arrangement," Reeves explains. "I learned that particularly from studying Gil Evans' music. He would take a tune and it would somehow end up in a completely different universe from where it originally started."
Reeves' entrancing original "Incandescence" was inspired by a trip to the south of France, where the composer - an amateur astronomer when away from the bandstand - marveled at the star-filled skies over a medieval walled village. The very next day he was at the piano in his rented house, capturing the majesty and mystery of that experience in music. "Shapeshifter" is similarly evocative, built on a tonal twelve-tone row that adds a touch of sci-fi strangeness (with an explicit wink towards Star Trek).
"JuJu" has been a favorite of forward-looking jazz musicians since Wayne Shorter first recorded it more than 50 years ago; of course, being one of the most forward-looking of them all, Shorter has never been interested in doing things the same way. John Patitucci, the longtime bassist in Shorter's revered modern quartet, gave Reeves the lead sheet for the sax icon's current approach to the song, which Reeves combines with a sax-section arrangement of Shorter's original solo, making this version something of a portrait of Shorter's incredible evolution. Another portrait of sorts, the lively "Something for Thad" closes the album with a brisk homage to another of Reeves' bandleading heroes, the great Thad Jones.
Though the prospect of leading a big band in the current music-industry environment is a daunting one, Reeves has learned all the right lessons from his mentors: assemble brilliant musicians; pen original, heartfelt music and inventive arrangements; innovate without losing touch with the tradition. With all of those elements radiantly in place, the Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra takes its place among jazz's most compelling ensembles on Without a Trace.
Scott Reeves is a trombonist, alto flugelhornist, composer, arranger, author, and college jazz educator. A Chicago native, he attended Indiana University where his teachers included David Baker and Thomas Beversdorf. Over the years, he also studied improvisation with Woody Shaw and Kenny Werner, and arranging with Manny Albam, Mike Abene, Jim McNeely and Mike Holober. Reeves regularly performs with the Dave Liebman Big Band, the Bill Mobley Big Band, and the Valery Ponomarev Big Band, and has subbed with the Vanguard Orchestra, the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, and the Oliver Lake Big Band. His own groups include the 17-piece Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra, his quintet with saxophonist Rich Perry, and his 4-trombone, 3-rhythm band, Manhattan Bones. Reeves has been teaching jazz at the university level since 1976 and is currently a Professor at The City College of New York, CUNY. His two books, Creative Jazz Improvisation and Creative Beginnings (both published by Prentice-Hall), are among the most widely used texts in their field.