Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Indy Jazz Fest double bill: Directors Jazz Orchestra, followed by hometown return of Phil Ranelin

Phil Ranelin is one of few active musicians with a Wes Montgomery connection.
To feel welcome, he had some formidable company who've made careers in his hometown. It was enough to make Phil Ranelin a congenial boss of the bandstand during an Indy Jazz Fest showcase Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

The 77-year-old trombonist, just inducted into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame,  led a set that felt like a homecoming reception. The band personnel is well-known to local jazz fans: Clifford Ratliff, trumpet; Rob Dixon, saxophones; Kevin Anker, piano; Thomas Brinkley, bass; Greg Artry, drums.

Long active in Detroit and Los Angeles, Ranelin on Monday night displayed his crisp, explosive trombone style in a comfortable context, focusing on energy and rapport more than precision of ensemble.

All the solos were strong in a selection from Ranelin's 2004 "Inspiration" CD. Dixon switched to alto, to follow Ratliff cheerfully in the series; Ranelin was at his assertive, sometimes lyrical best, and Anker and Artry brought up the rear of the parade commendably.

The band opened with a number based on "Sweet Georgia Brown." So many contrafacts have been mounted on that evergreen I won't hazard a guess as to the title. It was a hearty romp, in any case. The solos were bookended by  exuberant, jumpy trombone-drums duets.

The most attractive original was "Reminiscence of Wes." The tune is an illustration of a characteristic of Montgomery's composing pointed out in an IJF panel discussion Saturday by Monika Herzig: "strong and groovy." These tend to be catchy, solid tunes that don't encourage players to go all over the place, but to honor the theme with original thoughts. The composer did that Monday night in his solo: well-articulated, with short phrases wryly accented. Ratliff followed suit. In between came a Dixon solo that, to my ears, was profuse and unfocused. It could have gone with any number of tunes. Not up to his usual standard, which was well-represented elsewhere.

The only near-breakdown in the normally expert pickup band came in Ranelin's "Muy Erotico."  I was starting to think the title might be Spanish for "Where's the bridge?" as the performance flailed a bit to seat harmonically the contrast with the "A" section. After the bass solo, the rendition finally jelled and carried the sensuous piece through happily to the final chord.

The evening opened with the Directors Jazz Orchestra, familiar to swing-dance fans in Indianapolis from its appearances in Fountain Square. It grew out of Anderson, is now centered in Pendleton, and carries its founders' wish to play together outside the classrooms. Most of the members are public-school music teachers at the secondary level. Under the direction of Chris Taylor, the ensemble — about 20 strong in this appearance — offered a generous sampling of some of the standard arrangements in its book.

Vocalist Rachel Hochstetler, an elementary-school music teacher, was a welcome guest vocalist on the bandstand in songs ranging from "Orange-Colored Sky" to "Cry Me a River." The latter, though well-sung, lugged a bombastic arrangement that competed with the singer more than it supported her.

The hefty sound the band was capable of generating got a full exposition in Charles Mingus' "Better Get Hit in Your Soul," incorporating a display of brief solos and an exciting buildup punctuated by hand claps. The ensemble was challenged to stay together in "Home Again." The finale, "April in Paris," might have been a far cry from the machine-tooled Count Basie sound, but it brought cheers from the crowd with the expected threefold repetition of the grinding coda, with its crowning trombone-section smears.

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