IRA B. LISS: Tasty Tunes
By Paul Hormick, October 2018
With Tasty Tunes, Ira B. Liss proves that the big band survives well into the 21st century and, at least under his leadership, is thriving in inspiration and creativity.
Big band music is sometimes wrongly thought of as a dinosaur of the jazz idiom, having run its course sometime in the mid 1950s. While it is true that, by the mid-fifties, be bop creatively elbowed big band to the sidelines and Elvis Presley and Little Richard made the musical equivalent of a Cambrian explosion of rock ‘n’ roll over the airwaves and record players in the U.S., big band continued to entertain audiences and inspire dancers.
Big band lived on as it embraced and fostered creativity, which had been its secret to survival from its beginnings in the 1930s. Big bands also adapted to the times, incorporating rock rhythms, electronic instruments, and performing tunes by contemporary composers and songwriters. The best example I can think of here is the minor hit Stan Kenton scored with his big band version of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” in the seventies.
Liss and his big band sketch out this progression as the tunes advance from more traditional takes on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to the electric guitar-laden “Manhattan Burn.” Among the arrangements, my favorite was that of of Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” which incorporates quotes from the tenor giant’s “Pent-Up House” and his calypso inspired “Saint Thomas.” Liss and his ensemble give possibly the most David Grusinesque take on Grusin’s “Mountain Dance.”
Liss gathered a group of top-notch musicians for this project, with the addition of the guest performers guitarist Dean Brown, saxophonists Bob Mintzer and Eric Marienthal, and flutist Holly Hofmann. Every one of the 11 tunes is a great selection from jazz standards and the Great American Songbook.
The Wizard of Oz hit and Judy Garland’s signature song “Over the Rainbow” get the Maynard Ferguson treatment by Randy Aviles and Peter Green. The trumpeters get all the excitement of taking their trumpets into the stratosphere without turning the feat into some sort of musical high-wire act (as often happened with Ferguson).
The dozens and dozens of fans who follow my criticism in these Troubadour pages are familiar with the bonus points I award to disks that have plenty of music. Tasty Tunes receives nine bonus points for the 66 minutes, over an hour, of music.
Tasty Tunes is one of those rare disks that makes you stand up and take notice. Everything, absolutely everything about this recording is top-notch. From the breezy “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” to the Nat King Cole ballade “Nature Boy,” Liss chose a great selection of tunes. The arrangements are over-the-top exciting, inspired, engaging, lush, and fun. They are performed to a fare-thee-well by an obviously well-selected ensemble. The soloists turn in terrific performances. This is the best! With no hesitation, Tasty Tunes receives my highest endorsement. Two thumbs up!