Jazz Album of the Week: Airmen of Note Bring in Top Guns for Annual Jazz Heritage Series

Nov 9, 2020

November 9, 2020. After a tense election season marked by discord and division, you might find yourself yearning for something, anything, to restore your faith in this country and its institutions. Music has that power.

Released just in time for Veterans’ Day is The 2020 Jazz Heritage Series, the latest recording from the Airmen of Note (AON), the U.S. Air Force’s 19-piece big band. With a surprisingly electric vocal performance from Technical Sgt. Paige Wroble and guest appearances—as well as several arrangements each—from bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and trombonist John Fedchock, the latest installment of AON’s always star-studded Jazz Heritage Series is just the kind of non-partisan patriotic pick-me-up to restore your faith in the grand experiment—or at least provide a nearly 80-minute respite from the chaos.

The album’s opener, “Power Outrage,” clears the flight deck fueled by raw power and pure adrenaline. Written and arranged by Grammy nominee and One O’ Clock Lab Band alum Dave Richards, this one blows you back in your seat with the same force as Justin Hurwitz’ “Overture” from Whiplash, except Richards’ opening salvo is even more august, the build-up/payoff model even more gratifying. On lead trumpet, Sr. Master Sgt. Brian MacDonald, calls on a very passable Maynard Ferguson impersonation, and on the other end— a killer low-end—bass trombonist Master Sgt. Benjamin Polk and baritone saxophonist Master Sgt. Doug Morgan serve the band as Saquan Barkley’s tree-trunk legs serve the New York Giants’ prodigious runner, as the piston-like propulsive force behind the entire operation.

Next, AON takes on Benny Carter’s arguably definitive big band arrangement of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose.” Fedchock is the featured guest soloist here, but Wroble owns the tune. She stylizes vocally just enough to affect the voice and demeanor of a swing era leading lady but never crosses the line into camp or caricature. In the second verse, she sings in a succession of cascading chromatics, tough scales that cause even good singers to come up pitchy—but Wroble hits each note square and true. And her scatting is delivered with sass and musicality and great intuitive feel. She couldn’t have anticipated scatting the first few bars of “Dixie” but musically and rhythmically it was the perfect improvisational choice, launching her as though off a ski jump into another Maynard Ferguson-like high note that she and the lead trumpet hit perfectly in unison. This is a dynamic, impressive performance from a vocalist you probably haven’t heard of. Check her out.

Fast forwarding just a couple tracks will bring you to AON’s take on Cedar Walton’s “Ojos de Rojo.” The last of three tunes arranged by Fedchock, this one marks the first of five consecutive tunes impacted by either Christian McBride the bassist or Christian McBride the composer/arranger. As I’ve said before: Forget Hamilton; it’s Christian McBride who’s truly non-stop.

That said, it’s Morgan, the aforementioned bari saxophonist, who takes the prize here for ubiquity; his big, deep sound might be the unifying theme of the entire album. After another regal overture, it’s Morgan laying down a low-end hip-shaker of an ostinato out of which everything else grows, including rare chances for Technical Sgt. Chris Ziemba (piano) and Master Sgt. Ben Patterson (trombone) to do the whole small group thing, alternating roles out front backed by McBride, Master Sgt. David McDonald (drums), and Master Sgt. Geoff Reecer (guitar). The pièce de résistance, however, is fittingly provided by Morgan with a minute-plus bari sax solo that rewards this fine musician for his foundational work all over the record.

Two of the next three are McBride originals (arranged for big band here by McBride himself) featuring trumpeter and Philly native, Master Sgt. Luke Brandon, an alum of Temple University’s Jazz Studies program and a regular with the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia, who’s played with AON since 2013.

The first is “Gettin’ To It,” the funk-heavy title track from McBride’s debut studio album. The bass line predictably propels the tune throughout, and, along with superb support from the rest of the rhythm section, provides fertile ground for an extended Brandon solo that’s clean and confident and grooves in perfect time to McBride’s sensibility here.

The second is “The Shade of the Cedar Tree,” another tune originally from that debut studio release and one that’s been a favorite of McBride’s to play with his own big band. Master Sgt. Grant Langford is clean as can be soloing on tenor sax, channeling a bit of Sonny Rollins with an improvisational quote of “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” before slipping into a little Latin groove with the rhythm section. After briefly reprising the head, it’s Brandon’s turn again; his attacks a little more aggressive here, the very nature of the composition allows Brandon to stretch out and display a bit more of his big technique.

The final four tunes are the after-hours portion, a tribute to the Brecker brothers but no monochromatic assemblage. On one hand, there’s trumpeter Randy guesting alongside the revelatory Wroble on a fairly straight-ahead McBride arrangement of “The More I See You.” On the other side of the spectrum there’s the fusiony, totally-plugged-in and synthesized take on brother Michael’s “Song for Barry,” a fitting tribute to the innovative late saxophonist.

Somewhere in the middle is the delirium of the closing two cuts; there’s “Tokyo Freddie,” a frenetic Randy Brecker composition, and Michael Brecker’s “Straphangin’.” Combine with “Song for Barry” and you’ve got the mind-expanding cocktail of overnight jazz radio at your fingertips. Pair with high-octane coffee and some sort of work or school deadline for a buzzy all-nighter. Or, eschew the coffee, pass out on an open laptop with your contacts still in, and let Master Sgt. Tedd Baker’s ambitious tenor sax playing on the closer weave some seriously strange dreams into your subconscious.