Review by Edward Blanco
All material copyright © 2006 All About Jazz and contributing writers. All rights reserved.

Reasons to be Thankful, the second recording from Art Lillard’s Heavenly Band since 1995, offers a toe-tapping, fun, big band swing time experience. The Heavenly Big Band, a fixture and mainstay of the New York jazz scene since 1987, is the brainchild of drummer/composer and bandleader Art Lillard. Unlike most big band recordings, this album features all original compositions and arrangements in styles ranging from bebop to blues, Latin jazz, a sprinkle of mainstream big band, and a good dose of the modern swing dance music of today.

For this project, Lillard brings together seventeen top notch musicians, including pianist Arturo O’Farrill, Music Director of Lincoln Center’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Mike Longo of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, Bob Mover, and other sidemen from the Mingus and Chet Baker bands. Six cuts also feature vocals from four singers.

Except for the spunky big band tune “The Fast Track,” written by guitarist Mark McCarron, all thirteen pieces were composed by Lillard. The six with vocals include the danceable “Nonchalant,” the Latin jazz piece “Incognito,” the very bluesy “You Can’t Win Blues,” the obvious swinging number “Swingin’ the Blues Away,” and the beautiful, warm Latin-style “Dreamscape/Perfect World.”

On the instrumental side of things, the album is full of first-rate big band cuts, like ”Bluez Organ Man,” a loud Latin-tinged opener featuring many individual solo performances. ”Justice Waiting,” “Heavenly,” “Biznes Changes,” “Finding Our Own Way” and the title track round out the big band sound played from the mainstream in a bebop groove.

Reasons to be Thankful is a recording of fresh original material with wonderful orchestration and a unique way of blending the swing fad and the modern big band sound in one setting. This album merits many reasons to be thankful, which lovers of the big band sound will recognize.

Review by Jim Santella
All material copyright © 2006 All About Jazz and contributing writers. All rights reserved.

 Recorded in 2000, this session by Art Lillard’s big band combines lively swing and a traditional mainstream essence into one original package. Lillard and members of his organization wrote the music for this romping program. Lillard, a drummer, leads the band with a swinging rhythmic foundation and comfortable strides. He brings in vocal soloists for six of the thirteen tracks.

Lillard’s variable-pitch drum solo on “Bluez Organ Man,” and the song’s incredible fusion of Caribbean percussion with big band, is one of the session’s high points. Similarly, “Incognito,” with its exotic tango-esque persona and lively Latin percussion surroundings, makes a distinct impression. …

…. “Bluez Organ Man” and “Incognito” convey their rhythmic essence succinctly, while “You Can’t Win Blues” demonstrates the album’s dedication to the vocalese tradition. Lillard’s opening drum solo on “Swingin’ the Blues Away” sets the pace for the aspect of his music that’s suited to comfortable dance and a thrilling ride.

All material copyright © 2006 All About Jazz and contributing writers. All rights reserved.

Review by George W. Harris

Drummer Art Lillard has put together a tightly arranged big band recording featuring smack dab in the middle mainstream swing. Cleverly arranging most of the works himself, Lillard has done a worthy job of mixing lyrical ensemble work with well crafted solos. On the grooving “Bluez Organ Man”, the heavy latin percussion is the perfect foundation for David Peterson’s greasy tenor sax work. The breezy and swinging “Fast Track” features Mike Longo’s brisk and lithe piano work as a prelude to Bob Mover’s gossamer alto. Cute and clever singing by Miles Griffith is juxtaposed with the “Sing Sing Sing” sound alike “Swinging the blues Away.” Jim Cifelli’s melodic statement on “Heavenly” segues into some lovely sax section work before Michael Boschens golden trombone takes over. While not breaking any new ground, the Heavenly Band gives a few earthly joyful moments.

Review by John Gilbert
In ejazznews, February 20, 2006

Slick arrangements and good players equal great jazz, and on this album all of the above are true.

“The Fast Track” Bright and light is the byword. This tune scoots along, featuring solos by pianist extraordinare Mike Longo and altoist Bob Mover, who ‘runs’ wild and sweet.

“Swingin’ The Blues Away” the vocal by Miles Griffith has Jon Hendricks written all over it..Bob Mover rides again.

Longo introduces us to “Justice Waiting” and Justin Mullens trumpets his cause nicely.

This is a throwback album to the days of legit big band sounds. A solid ensemble with soloists who can ideate with the best…

5 Stars

Review by Michael P. Gladstone
All material copyright © 2006 All About Jazz and contributing writers. All rights reserved.

 File this one under: Swingin’ NYC Big Band! Drummer, bandleader and composer Art Lillard has been leading versions of this organization over the past nineteen years and has produced in Reasons To Be Thankful an upbeat and impressive album that exposes several talented and underappreciated musicians in the Big Apple. The thirteen selections are all Lillard originals, save for one by guitarist Mark McCarron, who also contributes several fine guitar solos throughout the album.

Lillard also shows a good sense of balance by including several vocals throughout the course of this session, thus providing a well-rounded presentation. They include a nice job by jazz cabaret singer Mary Foster Conkllin on the Latinized “Nonchalant” and especially the Jon Hendricks-inspired work of Miles Griffith on two tracks. His vocal on “Swingin’ The Blues Away,” combined with Bob Mover’s alto solo, is one of the album’s highlights.

Lillard’s sense of dynamics emerges with the opening “Bluez Organ Man,” which has an overlay of Caribbean percussion. Altoist Bob Mover, whom I haven’t heard from in decades, provides a solid contribution on “The Fast Track,” as does tenorist David Peterson on ”Conclusion Jump.” Lillard also gets some noted guest participation from pianists Mike Longo and Arturo O’Farrill.

Review by Peter Westbrook
Copyright© 2006®. All Rights Reserved.

…A museum piece is one thing this is not. It’s red-blooded American jazz and swing music that engages the intellect while it gets the toes tapping, one of the unique capabilities of this genre. “One of the things that people forget is (that) jazz used to be music to dance to,” legendary record producer Joel Dorn told me recently. “And it used to be music you went out to, to have fun. It’s not all serious and complex and abstract.” Well, the Heavenly Band manages to balance both these elements. The arrangements, mostly by Lillard plus one or two by guitarist Mark McCarron, have an exuberance about them, and a unique blend of colors that has been rather aptly described as “a dash of Bacharach, a measure of Mancini, half a jigger of “Birth of the Cool,” and an ounce of Tadd Dameron, serve(d) with a twist of modern gospel.” There is some straight-out swing, “Swingin’ The Blues Away;” a strong Latin component aided by the great Arturo O’Farrill and the late Mauricio Smith, as in “Incognito;” a strong blues component, “Biznes Changes” and several pieces built around the work of the band’s four vocalists and featuring the lyrics of flutist Jan Leder. The overall sound of the band has a brightness resulting from the somewhat unusual instrumentation, with two flutes in addition to the saxophone section with soprano and no baritone. (I hope Lillard’s scores make it into the library of some university jazz programs where flutists, who do not double on saxophone, as well as soprano saxophone specialists have a hard time fitting in.)

Along with the writing, the band boasts several fine soloists who inject the bop and post-bop, and Latin, elements into the mix. Mauricio Smith was a legend on the New York Latin jazz scene, while Arturo O’Farrill still leads the Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Mike Longo was a long-time associate of Dizzy Gillespie, altoist Bob Mover has worked with Charles Mingus and Chet Baker, while David Peterson, Michael Boschen, Erik Jekabson, Jay Collins and Kyle Whelan are top-flight performers drawn from New York’s seemingly inexhaustible talent pool.

These are all original compositions so Lillard and his compadres are adding invaluable material to the mother lode of American music, a new layer to add to the Great American Songbook. Let’s pray that, a generation from now, there are still musicians interested in interpreting it, and listeners willing to enjoy it.

Review by Richard Bourcier
Copyright© 2006®. All Rights Reserved.

Here’s a nice presentation by Art Lillard’s big band from New York City. Lillard’s classy congregation retains the spirit of the swing era but avoids repeating all the time-worn standards. Instead, the Heavenly Big Band offers more than a dozen novel pieces penned by Art Lillard and other band members.

Lillard’s orchestra, in big band tradition, varies the styles from blues, to swing and Latin rhythms. Loaded with good soloists, the group is always exciting in its approach. Lillard’s unusual arrangement of his own “Nonchalant” calls upon a section of four flutes, a fine soprano solo by Kyle Whelan and a classy vocal by Mary Foster Conklin. …“You Can’t Win Blues” calls out all the big guns with a sassy boppish vocal by Miles Griffith, guitar by Mark McCarron, alto by Bob Mover, Mike Longo’s piano and a drum break by the leader. It’s a great track.

Latin rhythms rule on “Dreamscape/Perfect Word” featuring a nice Cleve Douglass vocal, and a pretty flute solo by the late Mauricio Smith. Arturo O’Farrill is pianist for this and several other numbers. Trumpeter, Erik Jekabson delivers an impressive passage here and on Lillard & Leder’s “Incognito.” The session’s title song is reminiscent of the gentle melodies often used as closing themes in the heyday of Goodman, the Dorseys and all the other fondly remembered bands.

Review by Ty Bailey
 “SNAPSHOT” Jazz Recording Reviews posted February 1, 2009, by Ty Bailey Productions

…This band boasts several fine soloists who inject the bop, post-bop, and Latin elements into the mix. Mike Longo, Mauricio Smith, David Peterson, Michael Boschen, Erik Jekabson, Jay Collins and Kyle Whelan are some of the crème de la crème musicians in the New York area. There are all original compositions here. This is a memorable and powerful output.

Review by Harvey Siders
JazzTimes Magazine, June 2006

 ”Heavenly” is a strange way to describe one’s band; one might expect a large harp section and ethereal music. Well, Lillard’s aggregations fail to meet those otherworldly expectations. Check out the first cut, “Bluez Organ Man”: It’s very down to earth, even sensual in some aspects. And what about “The Fast Track?” Isn’t altoist Bob Mover playing a hard-bop solo, following a Basielike unison line? Heavenly is a misnomer.

Most of the arranging is by Mark McCarron and 12 of the 13 tunes are by Lillard, who also contributed some charts. But the songs are the weakest link in an otherwise pleasant, jazz-tinged presentation that finds instrumentalists given many opportunities to stretch out. Among the best solo statements: trumpeter Erik Jekabson on “Finding Our Own Way,” flutist Mauricio Smith and soprano saxophonist Jay Collins on “Dreamscape,” trumpeter Justin Mullens on “Justice Wating” and trombonist Michael Boschen on the title tune.

Review by Bruce Crowther
On his website, Jazz…and other obsessions

Composer and drummer Art Lillard has led his Heavenly Big Band for 18 years, performing mainly his own music. The band’s instrumentation, which includes four flute players, provides for a rather different sound. Although the ensemble passages are played with attack, the presence of the flutes brings a pleasing lightness. Clearly, Art and his sidemen are post-bop players and display considerable instrumental talent, playing with precision and taste, Among soloists heard are trumpeters Justin Mullens and Erik Jekabson, trombonist Michael Boschen, saxophonists Kyle Whelan, Bob Mover and David Peterson, guitarist Mark McCarron, and pianist Mike Longo. Also appearing hereon are singers Mary Foster Conklin, Cleve Douglass and Miles Griffith.  An interesting variation on the big band sound that should appeal to many.

Review by Howard Mandel
In New York Press, Vol. 19, Issue 10

Drummer Art Lillard has been swingin’ behind genuinely good-timey small groups in the least pretentious dives of Manhattan for ages to little press attention, but his full-sized Heavenly Band’s new CD, Reasons To Be Thankful, ought to change that. It’s an exceedingly pleasant album of Big Band charts Lillard wrote frothy with flutes, Latin flourishes and vocal harmonies a la the Sisters of Bellville. Despite the moniker, there’s nothing overtly religious about the ensemble or its leader—yet the Heavenly Band performs next at St. Peter’s Church on Sunday, March 19 (619 Lexington Ave. at 54th St., in the Citicorp Building; 7 p.m. $10). On Sunday, April 16, the Heavenly descends upon the harder-scrabble Nuyorican Poets Cafe (236 E. 3rd St., betw. Aves B & C; 8 p.m., $10).

Review by Len Dobbin
In the Montreal Mirror, March 9-15, 2006, Vol. 21 No. 37

Here [is a] lesser known New York-based [group] for the big-band fan to check out. Drummer Lillard’s release, mixing standards and jazz standards by the likes of Kenny Dorham and Tom McIntosh, has some distinct bonuses in the work of a number of guests that include the wonderful Bob Mover and Jay Collins. Pianists Mike Longo and Arturo O’Farrill, bassists George Mitchell and Sean Smith and vocalists Miles Griffith and Mary Foster Conklin are among the band’s members.

Review by Scott Yanow
In All Music Guide

As of 2006, Art Lillard’s Heavenly Orchestra had been together for 18 years, although the local big band is little known outside of New York. Two aspects are particularly unusual about this orchestra’s CD. Rather than playing standards like most swing-oriented big bands, all of the songs are originals by drummer-leader Art Lillard, who also arranged all of the pieces in a style reminiscent at times of both Count Basie and Thad Jones. In addition, four vocalists make appearances on six of the numbers yet do not dominate the music; Mary Foster Conklin is featured the most. Best known among the sidemen are veteran altoist Bob Mover and pianists Mike Longo and Arturo O’Farrill, but it is the more obscure players who generally take solo honors. The music overall is happy and swinging with well-played yet loose ensembles and a joyous group sound. Despite the lack of name recognition in both personnel and repertoire, Reasons to Be Thankful is easily recommended to fans of swinging big bands.

Reviews by Tom Hull

The big band can indeed be heavenly — not only when they work their Latin vibe, but when they flesh out the details on more conventional fare. The vocal pieces — six, with three lead singers — are nicely done, but not up to the rest of the band. B+(**),-Part-4.html

Don’t know anything about the drummer who leads this big band. One source notes that Lillard has led his group for 18 years, but this six year old session is the only item in his discography. It starts off marvelously with a distinct Latin vibe, but that seems to be just one of many things they can do. The instrumentals mix vibrant detail with a light touch. Six vocal pieces, with three lead singers, are harder to get a grip on. [B+(**)]

Comments from Angela Gittens
Program Coordinator, Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC)
(in an email)

Just wanted to let you know that your Heavenly Big Band CD sounds great! It’s very soothing, yet it diligently sets the big band mood with its colorful tones and bittersweet chords that border blues with a soulful dig. And of course, its title, Reasons to be Thankful, is perfect for this time of year, but it also reminds us listeners that being thankful is never out of season.

Comments by Conrad Mason

Coming up on the Station Is drummer Art Lillard’s latest. It’s called Reasons to Be Thankful. He continues to carry the torch left by legends like Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and others. The band cooks on the first track, Bluez Organ Man, which reminds me a lot of The Cosby theme that was done by Bennie Golson. My next pick is Justice Waiting. Guitarist Mark McCarron plays some great melodic improvisation similar to that of Chet Catallo, formerly of Spyro Gyra. On Bizness Changes Mark give us some Herb Ellis like melodies on this tune.

Comments by David Valdez
On his blog, Casa Valdez Studios

Art Lillard is a hard swinging NYC drummer, prolific composer and band leader who I began playing with while living in NYC. He has come out to play with me in Portland during the summers over the last several years. Both his tunes and his playing are extraordinary. He’ll be out here again in late July for some more gigs and a recording, so look for him then.

He’s put his life-blood as well a small fortune into his newest big band CD. We recorded it at the same studio that Bird with strings was recorded (that was cool to think about while playing). Art has paid some serious dues in the trenches of NYC for decades as a leader and as a sideman. Art swings his ass off!