Sunday, February 23, 2003

Pops has got it with 'Swing'

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Erich Kunzel recruits some winning instrumentalists for Got Swing!, an irresistible album of big band gems from the '30s and '40s, in stores Tuesday. Joining the Pops are jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and the 30-year-old vocal quartet Manhattan Transfer, singers known for their modern jazz and doo-wop style.

It's too bad Pizzarelli provides just two of the 14 numbers. His playing dazzles in Nat "King" Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right," and his understated, cool way with words allows the music to shine through. His improvisations are fun and inventive - such as inserting a few bars of "Tea for Two" - where Pops pianist Julie Spangler answers back with her own charming embellishments. He comes out in a blaze of technical fireworks in the wonderful "Avalon."

The Pops sound is big and splashy in the classic hit "String of Pearls," backing up the trio of Rick Van Matre on tenor sax, Antonio Hart on alto sax and Vincent DiMartino on trumpet. One of the Pops highlights is Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" - a Kunzel-style party that shows off the majestic power of the Cincinnati brass and percussion sections, which swap phrases with Van Matre (tenor sax) and Jim Pugh (trombone).

Soloists Hart, Pugh and trumpeter Scott Belck steam up the windows in "Blues in the Night," which has a sexy, big band sound. Van Matre takes up his clarinet for an infectious and smooth Benny Goodman tune, "Stompin' at the Savoy." Then there's the virtuosity of trumpeter DiMartino in a hot "Sweet Georgia Brown" - part big band, part New Orleans-style jazz.

Amid all this heat, the vocals fall somewhat flat. Singer Cheryl Bentyne and her scatting cohorts of Manhattan Transfer are too saccharine for my taste in "Sugar (That Sugar Baby O'Mine)," but the jazz arrangement (with clarinetist Van Matre) saves it from sweetness overload.

Manhattan Transfer's hit, "Clouds," which had is origins in Debussy's Nuages, is the height of easy listening. The singers are best in their own classics, like "Skyliner" and "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie." A husky-voiced Janis Siegel (a Manhattan Transfer member who also has a solo career) wins for best vocal in the soft jazz arrangement of "I'll Be Seeing You."


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