by Ron Wynn

Ryan Middagh Jazz Orchestra
“Live From Nashville”

Baritone saxophonist, composer and arranger Ryan Middagh has worked tirelessly since 2014 in making the Blair School of Music’s jazz studies program a great one. One of his areas of emphasis has been on the large jazz ensemble and orchestra, and this new CD spotlights both his abilities as a composer and arranger and also some of Nashville’s finest instrumentalists and vocalists. The nine-song program includes seven originals and excellent treatments of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” spiced by Jeff Coffin’s powerful tenor solo and Lindsey Miller’s impressive guitar contributons, and Bethany White’s strong lead vocal on the concluding gospel number “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” a mix of reverent spiritualism and some freewheeling Crescent City type colorations from Middagh on baritone sax, Evan Cobb on tenor sax and Marcus Finnie’s outstanding drumming.

But the originals are no less entertaining and spirited. Personal favorites include the opening number “The Commissioner,” with special guest trombonist Wycliffe Gordon providing spicy licks and getting fine assistance from alto saxophonist Alex Graham and bassist Patrick Atwater, and another sterling vocal number from Bethany Merritt on “Marina Arena,” with lyrics from Shirley Hilton and strong trumpet work from Jamey Simmons. Keb Mo’ brings blues fervor and energy to “It’s All Coming back as well as fine guitar work, ably supported by alto saxophonist Jovan Quallo. Don Aliquo takes center stage as the only soloist on his own composition, “Tune For Dee,” a poignant and magnificently played piece. There’s no number here that doesn’t boast tremendous musicianship, and the additional lure of this release is that it was recorded live with all the musicians in the same room, and several numbers done in one take. There’s a spontaneity and vitality here that’s more usually reserved for albums recorded in concert or in intimate clubs. However Ryan Middagh and company were able to capture the feel and reflect the sensibility of live performance in a studio, something that’s only possible when great musicians offer inspired performances of topflight material, and that’s clearly the case on “Live From Nashville.”

Miles Davis
(Warner Records/Rhino)

The key thing to remember when listening to “Rubberband” is that this was originally supposed to be his first work after departing Columbia. It’s certainly indicative of what Miles wanted to do in the last part of his career. Rhythm was the dominant thing in his music at that time, and while his always splendid, often breathtaking and sweeping trumpet sound was and is still heard on these tracks, this is Miles fitting himself into patterns where the beat is king rather than songs where the emphasis shifts from unison statements to individual moments of glory and then back again to final statements by the ensemble. Four of the tunes feature vocalists, the best of them “So Emotional,” with the wonderous Lalah Hathaway and the opening number “Rubberband of Life,” with the bouyant vocals of Ledisi.

Folks are either going to love or loathe these tracks, there’s no room for moderation. My own favorites from the instrumental cuts are “This Is It” and “Maze,” but all of them have their value. Miles was playing quite strongly on most of them, and not attaching a wah-wah pedal or using a mute very often. He does some experimenting with phasing, incorporates some synthesizer colorations, and multi-track dubbing of his horn, but it’s mostly still the familiar sound, pace and style that’s always been his forte. Never one to do a lot of upper register fireworks or rapid-fire solos, he plays with a mixture of aggression and poignancy.

As for this band, it won’t go down among his greatest, but they provided him the beats he wanted and his nephew Vince Wilburn, also the drummer for several cuts, is largely responsible for doing the work to get these sessions finally issued. It’s good to hear them and always a treat to hear Miles.