Remember when jazz orchestras skillfully adapted the music of Broadway musicals? Notable examples from the '50s and '60s include Les Brown's Dance to South Pacific (1958) and Stan Kenton's West Side Story (1961). Rather than send up cute pop caricatures, the best arrangers crafted interpretations that often were bigger, bolder and more dynamic than the originals. Add Terry Vosbein's new Fleet Street (MFM) to the list.
Terry who? Terry is a composer, arranger and educator at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA. On Fleet Street, Terry conducts the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra through his arrangements of Stephen Sondheim's music from Sweeney Todd. The result is superb reworking and a throwback to an age of introspective interpretation.
Even if you aren't completely familiar with Sweeney Todd, this album radiates with writing intelligence. At times the arrangements feel like brooding Johnny Richards charts for Kenton. At other times there are swinging shades of Bill Holman. And at every turn, the music captivates you with its dramatic, jazzy feel and fine understanding of how to improve on a brilliant original.
The immediate beauty of Fleet Street is that it never bogs down in somber neo-classical configurations. From the start, Fleet Street swings, zig-zags and constantly catches your ear before shifting into new territory. And it's big. There are 20 musicians here—five saxes, five trombones, five trumpets and a five-piece rhythm section.
As Vosbein told an interviewer:
"From the moment that I first saw Sweeney Todd in 1979, when it was brand new, I thought it was the most amazing thing that I had ever seen on every level—the performance, the writing, the dialogue. I've always loved it.
"When I was working on my previous CD for the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra (Progressive Jazz 2009), I had finished the music and had some time. So I wrote an arrangement of Johanna, one of the pieces from Sweeney Todd, and we added that piece to the album. Maybe I always knew I was going to come back to it, but I thought once the first piece was completed that I should continue and do the whole show."
Born in New Orleans, Vosbein has composed works for orchestra, wind ensemble, various chamber ensembles and choir, and he has written works for jazz bands of all sizes. Fleet Street is an album of enormous professional maturity and sensitivity.
Sample Pretty Women, Wait, The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (Reprise) and Not While I'm Around. An album like this would be impossible if Vosbein didn't have enormous reverence for Stan Kenton and his arrangers. To pull off such a project, you need a sense of grandeur, restraint, a love for beautiful melody lines, respect for those lines and an ear that has done an enormous amount of careful listening.
Most of all, you need to know your big-band audience. And Vosbein does.
JazzWax notes: Terry Vosbein and the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra will be performing a tribute to the music of Stan Kenton at Washington and Lee University on October 8. For more information, go here.
Also, a special thanks to JazzWax reader Joe Lang.
JazzWax clip: Here's Terry Vosbein and the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra performing By the Sea from Sweeney Todd with photos from a rehearsal. Hear what I mean?