Dr. Perry Alexander

The University of Kansas

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Strictly Smokin' and Friends - Strictly Smokin' Big Bang

If you know me long enough I will tell you at some point that just about my favorite thing ever is playing in a big band. There is nothing like it. I’ve been on great sports teams, I’ve been in top-flight orchestras and wind ensembles, I’ve been a part of amazing design and research experiences. Nothing compares to the precision and teamwork of a great big band. Strictly Smokin’ is a great big band that will get your attention even if you’re not a fan of that musical era.

What I like about the big band both from a performing and listening perspective is the precise ensemble work. Everyone has their note. Everyone delivers their note at exactly the right time. Wow does it work. There is a ton of great soloing on this album - everything from trombone and trumpet to Hammond B-3 and flute. What floored me is the ensemble itself.

The opening track “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise” is amazing. The trumpet section opens this track with a flourish that will take your breath away. Tight with sharp edges, the entire section plays the opening melody. The saxophones take the tempo down a bit and do their thing similarly followed by a great trumpet solo with the trombones underneath. Wow. The rhythm section is right there supporting the entire thing. Every section featured with brilliant playing.

“Cool Struttin’” is a perfect title for the second track. Opens with a Hammond B-3 taking the lead. Cool, downtempo. Then the reeds have their flourish and take off only to come back down to the Hammond and a great organ solo. This track swings hard as the ensemble starts to rear its head again, only to disappear once more into a quiet brass interlude. They tease. Tenor solo. The ensemble the steps forward and leaves it for the Hammond to close out. This is really great stuff.

“Love For Sale” introduces a vocalist and a subtle latin feel. Exceptional supporting work by the ensemble and rhythm section. “Sweet & Lovely” follows the same pattern featuring a great trombone solo. “Pete Kelly’s Blues” takes it down a notch featuring trumpet solo and the ensemble.

There is a real art to backing a vocalist. The ensemble demonstrates that art earlier on “Love For Sale” and again on “Devil May Care”. A Sinatra-esque vocalist scats above the ensemble who provide support that interweaves with the singer perfectly. I can picture my grandparents dancing at 18th & Vine in Kansas City back in the 50’s.

A now for something complete different. “Daisy Mae” takes us from the 50’s to the 70’s funk era, complete with flute solo and that great funky bass and muted trumpet sound. You know that bass sound that The Crusaders had in their heyday mixed with the funk rhythm guitar. It’s just perfect. I keep expecting a cop show to pop up on my screen.

Finally the jazz classic “Airegin” takes us back to the classic big band sound and we close with “Twitterbug Waltz” swinging hard around soprano sax work.

This is as good a big band album as anything I’ve heard in years. They do not hide from what they are - a quintessential big band. But their playing is modern and joyful. What I’ve read online is while they play in a classic style, they reach to their audience in a completely modern way. It shows. Smokin’ is a British band who I hope comes across the pond and tours.