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Settin’ the Pace
(Featuring vocalist Carla Cook)

Review by Doug Boynton

Settin’ the Pace (GJazz Records) from the George Gee Big Band is a fine CD, worth every dime I paid for it. Of course, I got my copy for nothing, and you need to decide if it’s worth 15 bucks.

The band–heavy on the sax, please–sounds much bigger than its listed 17 members. They play with some regularity at the legendary Birdland jazz club in New York, which isn’t a bad reference, at all. Without question, they can be very good; I’m just not sure this uneven disc is one of their better outings.

The album was directed (and mostly arranged) by legendary 76-year-old sax man Frank Foster, who has played sporadically for years with the Count Basie Orchestra. Recording was done at Peter Karl’s Studio in Brooklyn. To me, it sounds as if the studio is too “live,” meaning it has too much echo. I can’t tell if it’s the recording or the mixing, but the solos don’t stand out as they should–they’re often buried beneath the rest of the orchestra. And, whether the fault lies with the band, the arrangements, or the conducting, some tracks–“Mambo Inn” being an example–simply sound like cacophony.

All that said, a few tracks recommend this disc highly, particularly those featuring Carla Cook. A native of Detroit and nominated for a Grammy┬« in 1999, Cook reminds me of Nancy Wilson. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. Her voice, best in the lower ranges, is featured on three tracks: Oscar Hammerstein’s “Lover Come Back to Me,” Ray Noble’s classic, “The Very Thought of You,” and Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves.” The band–backing Ms. Cook rather than taking the lead–sounds smooth and really hits their stride. They do an equally solid job backing tenor sax man Lance Bryant as a vocalist on “I Don’t Want to Learn to Sing the Blues,” another winner.

The lively opener, “Out of Nowhere,” also grabs your attention. It showcases Gee’s sax section (channeling Billy May) perfectly, with Ed Pazant and Marshall McDonald on alto, Michael Hashim and Lance Bryant on tenor, and Howard Johnson on baritone. Trumpeter Walt Szymanski also turns in a fine performance,somewhat muted by that darn mixing problem,on “When Your Lover Has Gone.”

Although recorded in the studio, this disc sounds like a very good live performance. The band could be tighter on several tunes, and the production is less than optimal. On the other hand, I just recommended six cuts, or half the disc. I pay cash all the time for CDs and do much worse. If you can find this album on an online service, like iTunes, purchase the recommended cuts, and save yourself some money. Me? I’m looking for more by Carla Cook!

Doug Boynton is a journalist, mystery novelist, and the tune wrangler at www.girlsingers.org.

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