When Mike Crotty and the Sunday Morning Jazz Band perform locally they invariably play "Well You Needn't," a Thelonious Monk composition. But this is no mere tribute to Monk; it's a puzzle worthy of Rubik himself. Crotty's version contains snippets of at least 15 melodies composed by Monk, all transcribed, edited and woven into one ingenious arrangement.
Like the best of Monk's work, Crotty's salute is witty and playful, delightfully unpredictable and likely to haunt the listener long after the last note sounds. Happily, jazz buffs interested in testing their wits no longer have to suffer the indignity of scribbling their answers on a table napkin by candlelight. "Well You Needn't" is one of six genuinely distinctive arrangements included on the Sunday Morning Jazz Band's long-awaited debut album, "In Search of the Phoenix" (Jazz Heritage JHI 81001).
As charming as the Monk maze is, the arrangement is by no means the most successful Crotty has developed. Though he is still quite young, he's written a good deal over the years and his credentials are impressive: For the past eight years he's been the Airmen of Note's principal composer and arranger; his charts frequently bolster Clark Terry's Big Band sound, and recently he also composed a score for Terry and the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Even so, "In Search of the Phoenix" is likely to be widely regarded as his most impressive achievement.
The album opens with "Jeanine," a Duke Peterson tune, which blasts out of the gate and then swings with enormous verve and momentum. Muted brass and robust reeds coalesce in vigorous and colorful ensemble performances. They're interspersed with incisive solo contributions from several members of the SMJB who consistently stand out: saxophonists C.J. Landry, Mike Redford and Crotty; trumpeter Steve Robinsons and trombonist Ken Hedberg.
Hedberg's lyrical phrasing also imparts a special warmth to "Tone Poem for a Rainy Day." As is often the case, Crotty's arrangement is full of shifting textures and moods, something Hedberg handles especially well.
If the title track is the album's most striking composition -- with its bold contrasts and brassy conflagrations -- then Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes" is one of its most rewarding. This is the kind of chart one hears all too seldom from big bands. Crotty has remained faithful to the spirit of the original version, retained its personality and enhanced it considerably.
In return, all one can hope for is that, through airplay, this performance and the others on "Phoenix" will enhance the SMJB's growing national reputation. It couldn't happen to a better big band.
Other local jazz albums worthy of mention include pianist Stef Scaggiari's "Just the Beginning" (Gene Machine SS11180), which, incidentally, also features the SMJB's fine drummer Dave Palamar.
Occasionally Scaggiari displays a sweet tooth for pop-jazz confection. His own "Window-shopping," for example, suggests the spry yet forgettable funk Ramsey Lewis hammers out on occasion. Another of Scaggiari's tunes, "My Little Girl," resembles the sort of lilting, lightweight electric piano diversion Bob James has mastered. Neither tune can compare with the best Scaggiari has to offer.
On "I'll Remember April," Scaggiari proves he has a marvelous right hand, capable of fleet and often lovely melodic improvisations. He also works beautifully with bassist Marshall Hawkins, whose strong sense of direction is sorely missed when Scaggiari turns to the electric piano for inspiration.
Another stand out is "Indian/Donna Lee," which finds Scaggiari and his sessionmates straddling along with impressive ease and confidence.
Finally, there's no telling just what the iconoclastic keyboard player Lamont Johnson will perform. Johnson always has a few tricks up his sleeve. His latest album, "New York Exile" (Masterscores MS 800 1R21S), is a wonderfully evocative remembrance of the years he spent in New York. Each of the seven selections succeeds in conveying a different and quite specific urban mood or setting -- a slow Hudson River fog descending on the city, the bump-and-grind burlesque of Old Broadway, the charged atmosphere of a Lower East Side jazz club, or even bag ladies vying for space on crowded park benches.
It's a highly personal portrait, but Johnson couldn't have done it alone. Saxophonists Charles McPherson and Hollis Gentry bring his recollections to life, and their inspired performances make this album something special.