REVIEWS OF “CERTAIN RELATIONSHIPS,” RECORDED BY ART LILLARD’S HEAVENLY BIG BAND
Review by Chris Spector
In Midwest Record Entertainment
Chris Spector, Editor and Publisher
Volume 38/Number 91, January 30, 2015
Copyright 2015 Midwest Record
Lillard and his well traveled pals aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, they’re just out to have a good time and make sure you have one too. A bunch of big band lovers cast aside whatever proclivities you might recognize them for and just go and swing. Not retro, not nostalgia, not homage, just taking a joy ride down a road that’s been well traveled but certainly benefits from having some new pilots navigate it’s curves. Fun stuff that emits joy from every byte. Well done.
Review by D. Oscar Groomes
O’s Place Jazz Newsletter, March 2015
Certain Relationships explores a multitude of musical and emotional interactions. Drummer Art Lillard’s large ensemble is world class. Aside from fine work by the band, there are some excellent vocals by Hilary Gardner on “Heavenly”; Andrea Wolper on “Girl From Ipanema” also with Pete McGuiness on “Let’s Get Lost”; and Dominique Eade, Hilary Gardner and Mary Foster Conklin. The brass harmonies are a rich warm backdrop for the vocals and the rhythm section keeps things bouncing along led by Lillard’s energetic work on the skins.
Review by Jack Bowers
In All About Jazz, March 29, 2015
Drummer Art Lillard’s Heavenly Big Band continues to spread sunshine and happiness on Certain Relationships, an album recorded in three sessions spanning the half-dozen years between 2005-2011. Of the fifteen selections, nine are vocals —by Pete McGuinness, Hilary Gardner, Andrea Wolper, Mary Foster Conklin or Dominique Eade. In Lillard’s optimistic eyes, even the blues are gladsome (as Wolper affirms on Track 5, the buoyant “Happy Blues”). And the shuffling “You Bluesed Me,” nicely sung by Conklin, is far more sunny than sullen.
McGuinness, best known as a trombonist who leads his own big band in the Big Apple, bares his vocal chops on the upbeat opener, “Evidence / Just You, Just Me,” and resurfaces on the Chet Baker favorite, “Let’s Get Lost.” The silky-voiced Wolper is showcased on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema” and waits patiently in line behind trombonist Jackie Davis before enhancing an unhurried reading of “Just Friends.” Wolper and McGuinness intermingle on Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” (usually a ballad but set here to a saucy Latin beat) while Eade helps wrap things up with a good-natured vocal / scat on the standard “Pennies from Heaven.”
The band has center stage to itself on James P. Johnson’s ragtime-flavored “Carolina Shout,” guitaristMark McCarron’s zestful “Swing Trane,” McCarron / Lillard’s samba “Eleanor’s Place,” Kent Glen’s breezy drum feature for Lillard, “Brusheeze,” Albert Ammons’ aptly named “Boogie Woogie Stomp” and the Sigmund Romberg / Oscar Hammerstein evergreen, “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” The band as a whole excels on every one, with splendid solos along the way by Lillard, soprano saxophonists Chris Bacas and Danny Walsh, guitarists McCarron and Steve Blum, alto Bob Mover, flutist Jan Leder, trumpeter Sam Hoyt, tenor Paul Carlon and pianist Jon Davis (featured on “Morning Sunrise”). Walsh, Bacas, trumpeters Mark McGowan, Walt Szymanski and Barry Bryson, alto Gerald Thomas, tenor Michael Hashim, guitarist William Ash, trombonist Stafford Hunter and pianist Ted Kooshian add impressive statements on the vocal tracks.
Lillard’s point of view, if one may hazard a guess, seems to be that big-band jazz can be uplifting and fun to listen to as well as cerebral. With Certain Relationships as a benchmark, he is definitely on the right track. This is a refreshing album from start to finish.
Review by Jordan Richardson
Published on Canadianaudiophile.net, a private website, April 4, 2015
Composer, arranger and drummer Art Lillard pilots what could be described as an overwhelming passion project with Certain Relationships, a recording that certainly puts the “big” in big band. Nine years in the making, this album features three different groups. There are five vocalists, ranging from Pete McGuinness to Andrea Wolper. And there are countless soloists.
With these groups, Lillard has constructed a world of robust and tuneful music that always serves the melody. The pieces, all 15 of them, have a common feature in that there’s a strong and sweet core. Lillard’s influences, namely the one and only Fats Waller, shine through in his compositional essence.
But best of all is how apt the title is, with such a large bunch of musicians still somehow forging a bond that connects the music to the listener. Their performances aren’t showy. There’s no congestion and the artists afford just the right amalgam of sound and fury.
“Evidence/Just You, Just Me” starts the program with Ralph Hamperian’s bass crawl and some splashes from the horns. McGuinness takes the vocal, while guitarist William Ash stretches the frets ahead of a suitably blaring and bright tenor saxophone solo by the great Michael Hashim.
The same group pops through tunes like the ragtime “Carolina Shout,” which showcases the flutes (Jan Leder and Carol Sudhalter) and makes serious hay out of the brass section. And there’s more flute proficiency on a clever version of “Girl from Ipanema,” which finds Wolper in her element. She expresses all the sensuality required of such a classic number, adding equal parts hunger and danger.
“Happy Blues” features another group of musicians, although Wolper is once again the vocalist. This hopping piece showcases Cecilia Coleman’s ivories and is painted by Danny Walsh on soprano saxophone. The same unit goes all-in on Kent Glen’s “Brusheeze,” which is remarkably the only track on Certain Relationships to set Lillard front and centre with a drum solo.
A third organization is game for the red-blooded “She Bluesed Me.” Mary Foster Conklin does the vocal honours, slithering and slinking through a bottom-heavy piece that hits midnight with an Itai Kriss flute solo.
Animated and blazing throughout, Lillard’s Certain Relationships is an electrifying big band record. These musicians are passionate about their craft and nobody endeavours to pull ahead of the game. Their commitment drives the art, which in turn sets Lillard’s compositions ablaze and makes for one hell of an album.
Review by Joseph Lang
From the March 2015 issue of Jersey Jazz http://www.njjs.org/p/jazzJournal.php
ART LILLARD’S HEAVENLY BIG BAND has been on the scene in New York for over 25 years, but Certain Relationships (Summit – 6460) is only the second album that they have released, a follow-up to their swinging 2006 effort Reasons to Be Thankful (Summit – 440). The program of 15 tunes was recorded with three different lineups between 2005 and 2011. No matter the players, drummer Lillard knows how to put a good band together to play the superb charts arranged by Lillard, Mark McCarron, Paul Carlon, Kent Glen and Jon Davis. The selections are a mix of familiar tunes like “Just You, Just Me,” “Just Friends,” “Girl from Ipanema,” “God Bless the Child,” “Let’s Get Lost,” Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” and “Pennies from Heaven;” a couple of jazz classics, “Carolina Shout” and “Boogie Woogie Stomp;” and originals by Lillard, McCarron and Glen. Ten of the tracks have vocals by Pete McGuiness, Hilary Gardner, Andrea Wolper, Mary Foster Conklin or Dominique Eade. This collection is varied in feeling, but always keeps the listener interested. Lillard’s band in not widely known outside the New York City area, but this fine disc should open up more ears to their artistry.
Review by Pistano Seeber
In All About Vocals, Feb. 6, 2015
It isn’t often when the drummer is the bandleader, but such is the case for Art Lillard who’s second offering with the Heavenly Big Band sports guest vocalists Mary Foster Conklin, Dominque Eade, Hilary Gardner, Pete McGuinness and Andrea Wolper.
Vocalist Pete McGuiness who currently has two nominations for a Grammy this year; Best Arrangement-Instruments and Vocals (What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?) and Best Arrangement-Instrumental or A Capella (Beautiful Dreamer), emits a presence of command with “Evidence/Just You, Just Me,” his voice has a buoyancy and McGuiness scats with precision and eloquence. Vocalist Hilary Gardner exhibits an engaging take on “Heavenly” with an easy going bossa nova that Gardner wraps with her temptress voice.
Vocalist Andrea Wolper put her stamp on “Happy Blues,” making the tune pure delight. Dan Walsh takes and inspired soprano solo, while trumpeter Walt Szymanksi equally rises to the occasion. A Latin-inspired take makes this cut especially exciting.
A long moonlight entrance on “Just Friends” fans the embers before trombonist Jack Davis puts his sizzle on the solo and the seductive lyrical topping of Andrea Wolper taking a chorus out gives the entire storyline its final meaning.
“You Bluesed Me” gives the listener a chance to embrace Mary Foster Conklin’s bluesy and evocative vocal lines, for a textural change and Itai Kriss serves up energetic angular lines with strong accents on flute.
Dominique Eade give the listener a foot tapping version of “Pennies From Heaven,” with scatting reminiscent of Sarah Vaughn, her peaks and valley of range, give a full-tilt rendition. The track moves along with bounce and panache. Trumpeter, Barry Bryson has a bright sound that gives the track lilt and shine, and trombonist Stafford Hunter’s sound is round and warm.
Certain Relationships offers and equality of vocal and instrumental delight, with 9 outstanding vocal cuts the unification of vocal and instrumental cuts alike make this a delightful offering. Each vocalist is not like the other, adding up to a hugely successful approach for vocal fans, as the recording truly has something for everyone, whether it be instrumental, male or female vocals, Certain Relationships is a win.
Review by Susan Frances
In AXS, Jan. 30, 2015
Drummer/bandleader Art Lillard insists that the arrangements for his Heavenly Big Band avoids bouts of improvisation but there are plenty of moments when the various instruments indulge in surges of free-style soars and thriving solos on the band’s new release, Certain Relationships. Whether it’s Lillard’s drums, the horns, or the keys stenciling opulent swirls and fiery raptures, the band’s dynamics and textural make-up are all good and free-flowing.
Each track has a skeletal form which works out the harmonies and vocal melodies while allowing a great deal of elbow-room for impressive solos and artfully crafted nuances. Lead vocalist Pete McGuiness radiates a light and flirty air in “Evidence/Just You, Just Me,” and vocalist Hilary Gardner taps into the come-hither magnetism of a temptress in the slow simmering bossa nova grooves of “Heavenly.” Ragtime staples like “Carolina Shout” and “Boogie Woogie Stomp” inject frolicking horns into the recording with a touch of vaudeville-imbued finesse.
The buoyant versing of “Happy Blues,” helmed by vocalist Andrea Wolper, infuses Latin-encrusted percussions and elements of ballroom swing found in Walt Szymanksi’s trumpet and Dan Walsh’s soprano saxophone. The candlelight embers of “Just Friends” are filament by the balmy surf of Jack Davis’s trombone as Wolper’s breathy vocals permeate a feline-style reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe‘s delivery of “I’m Thru with Love” in Some Like It Hot. The cool strut of the horns in “You Bluesed Me” embrace Mary Foster Conklin’s sleek vocals then segue into a boppish blend in the John Coltrane influenced “Swing Trane.”
The island sway of “Girl from Ipanema” is lathered in the frothy furls of Mark McGowan’s trumpet and the emulsifying rivulets of saxophonists Jim Clouse and Chris Bacas as Wolper purveys an alluring vixen in her vocal performance. The band injects an upbeat vibe into the usually mellow “Pennies from Heaven“ and “God Bless the Child” permeating a Gershwinesque brightness then shifts to a Latin shimmy in the wagging percussions of “Eleanor’s Place” embellished by a cavalcade of frilly horns.
The classic jazz atmosphere of “Brusheeze” is a collaboration of Jan Leder’s flute and Bob Mover’s alto sax obtaining airborne as Lillard’s drums and Mark McCarron’s guitar prop a cushiony base for their flights. Vocalists Pete McGuiness and Andrea Wolper come together on “Let’s Get Lost” shrouded in the romantic shading of tenor saxophonist Michael Hashim and alto saxophonist Gerald M. Thomas as William Ash’s guitar erects smooth rolling riffs into the track. Evidence of vintage swing are also found in Lillard’s brushed drum strokes lining “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” adorned in the flouncing tweets of Dan Walsh’s soprano sax and the glittering keys of Jon Davis’ piano.
Certain Relationships is an amalgamation of contemporary jazz with classic jazz influences, juxtaposing various breeds entrenched in big band swing, ragtime, blues, ballroom, and Broadway showtunes. Nostalgic tunage is modified with present day alterations, making for arrangements that appeal to modern audiences..
Comment by WRHU Radio broadcaster John Bohannon
On Amazon.com, March 22, 2015
One of the best current big bands. A must have.
Review by Rob Lester
Talkin’ Broadway/ Sound Advice
“It’s the little things you do together that make perfect relationships,” sings Joanne in Sondheim’s Company, but the Certain Relationships of the so-titled album by the company kept in drummer/bandleader/sometime arranger Art Lillard’s Heavenly Big Band aren’t so much little things, but big swingin’ ones. It’s a big band, after all, and the emphasis is on happy. But, actually, it’s not a big band in the sense of blasting you away loudly, with well over a dozen pieces in their revolving membership as recorded here in three different years (2005, 2007, and 2011, but just released this year). You can really hear the individual sounds and instruments distinctly, and not just when they have their generous solos. It’s crisp, yet the attitude is smooth. Muddiness would be anathema. The teamwork is terrific. And that goes for the vocalists, too: they get plenty of focus, but are decidedly part of the band. The arrangements make it all a joyous tapestry. There’s not a hard moment to be found.
There’s a sublime contented feeling, not a sense of trying too hard to prove anything. At ease, but not “easy listening,” things are entertaining and accessible, the solos quite engaging and adept, without being showy. Those who like sax work will be especially gratified, as that instrument family is especially represented: tenor, alto, and soprano sax.
Also gratifyingly heard is the flute. Flute player Jan Leder does double duty as a co-songwriter with Lillard. These use blues in interesting ways in repertoire that is mostly upbeat. Their “Happy Blues” argues that the genre doesn’t have to be a downer, and vocalist Andrea Wolper, the most prodigiously present one among several, makes a good case for the theory with her sunny-smooth vocal. And the skillfully sly Mary Foster Conklin gets the songwriters’ “You Bluesed Me,” using the word as a verb, cleverly, in a song that could easily be too cute or cumbersome in its scolding in less skillful hands. This number calling out a rather heartless lover, which includes spoken sections that would stymie many, is more than a simple guilt trip, but rather a kind of unique blame game that is dramatically hip.
Other highlights on the singing side include the disarming vocal performances of Pete McGuinness, sometimes with Miss Wolper in interesting support. “Let’s Get Lost” (Frank Loesser/ Jimmy McHugh) includes the rarely used verse and keeps my interest throughout it lengthy seven-and-a-half-minute timing. And “God Bless the Child” (sure to be heard aplenty in this year of Billie Holiday’s centenary) is presented in a highly unusual lively rendition that doesn’t sacrifice the essence of the lyric. It simply illuminates the positive side of the picture. The two vocalists’ interplay is as delightful as it is adept, a seesaw of sharing. Hilary Gardner’s voice is silky on Lillard/Austin John Marshall’s number which is the band’s theme (“Heavenly”) and Dominique Eade is likeable on the CD’s final cut, another Heaven-centric choice: the oldie “Pennies from Heaven.” Perhaps in deference to the happier and “fun” overall mindset, the verse—which admonishes us about the grand design of the world and not appreciating the bounty we have until it’s taken away—is omitted.
And the instrumental tracks have much to offer. I admire very much how there’s no stodginess with an old piece. If you didn’t know that “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” was born in a Sigmund Romberg operetta many decades ago, you might not guess it. It sounds fresh as tomorrow, and Jon Davis’ piano solo is a winner there. My favorite of the instrumentals is another oldie not showing its elderly status either: James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout,” which makes me grin from ear to ear as played here. It’s my candidate for the feel-good band track of the season. Lillard sure knows how to do happy. In fact, this album is just right to elevate a steamy, oppressive summer night or day. A hammock and a spiked lemonade would complete the picture. If there can be a “certain relationship” between cooling and energizing, I guess that would indeed be Heavenly. So here it is.
Review by James Poore
Muisc Web International, jazz reviews 2015
If you like old-style big band music, complete with a roster of vocalists, this combination of standards and Art Lillard originals will appeal to you. Recorded on three separate occasions from 2005 through to 2011, with substantial differences of personnel on each date, Art Lillard’s Heavenly Big Band has been around since 1987. Art as composer, arranger and drummer has had, therefore, an enduring commitment to this project.
There were several stand-outs for me on the disc. One of these was Heavenly, the band’s theme tune written by Lillard himself. The lyrics are delivered well by Hilary Gardner and the accomplished Stafford Hunter can be heard on trombone. The arrangement put me in mind somewhat of Johnny Mandel (not for the only time on this recording). Just Friends has a smooth tenor introduction leading into a dreamy presentation of the theme before Andrea Wolper, the pick of the vocalists, sings the lyrics. It is Wolper who gives Girl From Ipanema a make-over, swinging along nicely in both English and Portuguese. I also especially enjoyed Let’s Get Lost where Pete McGuinness takes the main vocal honours (hard, though, to escape the influence of Chet Baker on anyone attempting this song). In addition to McGuinness, there is the lusty tenor of Michael Hashim, lively alto from Gerald M. Thomas and restrained but effective guitar from William Ash. Softly As In A Morning Sunrise has an excellent arrangement and I liked the oblique style of Jon Davis on piano. There are too many quality solos on other tracks to mention here but Lillard’s Brusheeze is a prime example of a piece which serves as a showcase for individual talents in the band, not least the leader himself. The one track which I thought missed the mark was God Bless The Child which is almost jaunty and is as far away from the Billie Holiday original as it is possible to get, to its detriment.
All in all, though, this was an entertaining and appealing listening experience, tinged with nostalgia.
Review by Dick Metcalf (Rotcod Zzaj)
In Improvijazzation Nation, issue #160
Art Lillard’s Heavenly Big Band – CERTAIN RELATIONSHIPS: It’s been a while since I reviewed Art’s high-talent music (issue # 144), and also a while since I originally received this one for review… my apologies to all, of course. You’ll hear the sonic joy he’s able to project via his big band (he actually used 3 different groups of players) on the jaunty “Happy Blues“… unquestionably an oxymoron, but it kicks & will have you up & jumpin’ ’round the ballroom in only moments. I just loved the back-alley cat feel of “You Bluesed Me“… definitely one swingin’ piece. You’ll actually get more notes than you bargained for on this album… a total of fifteen high-spirited tracks that literally “define” what jazz was (as well as what it should be). My personal favorite of all those performances is the 7:59 “Brusheeze“… some splendid drums, and I loved the flutes on this one. I give Art & his spirited players a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for this great jazz! “EQ” (energy quotient) rating is 4.99. Get more information at Art’s website. Rotcod Zzaj