OXYMORONIC though it may be, "Serious Fun" is an apt title for the latest release by Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy. Come to think of it, those words pretty much sum up the band's credo, since it's forever rearranging pop, R&B, jazz and soul standards in ways that are both witty and wise.
This time around its "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Smooth Operator," "Da Butt," "God Bless the Child" and "Don't Worry Be Happy," among other songs, that get a Bowie makeover. Typically, Bowie's willfully wayward trumpet is easy to pick out in the 11-member ensemble. He'd just as soon blur, slur or glance a note than hit it squarely, preferring personality over precision and color over clarity.
To be fair, though, the arrangements by E. J. Allen, Steve Turre and Earl McIntyre are the album's greatest asset, and allow several opportunities for trombonist Turre, trumpeter Stanton Davis, French horn player Vincent Chancey and tuba player Bob Stewart to shine as well. By gracefully treading that fine line between parody and homage, the arrangers put a fresh and often whimsical spin on the material without sacrificing its inherent charm. You won't always find yourself more enamored of the updates than the original recordings, but it's impossible to mistake the band's flair for stamping each tune with its own quirky signature.
LESTER BOWIE'S BRASS FANTASY -- "Serious Fun" (DIW). Appearing Saturday with Bobby Watson & Horizon and the Rick Margitza Band at the Sheraton Washington Hotel as part of the International Association of Jazz Educators Convention. Call 800/448-9009 or 202/347-2604.