Collectors' Choice Music

Album Review

Composer/conductor and trumpeter Neal Hefti honed his unmistakable swinging Middle of the Road (MOR) style after spending his formative years -- right out of high school -- in the company of Charlie Barnet, Muggsy Spanier, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Bobby Byrne, and Charlie Spivak. In addition to performing, Hefti was becoming an arranger of note. He then garnered the attention of Horace Heidt, whose version of "Pin Up Girl" was incorporated into the James Stewart and Paulette Goddard film Pot o' Gold (1941). That led to stints with Woody Herman -- who had rejected Hefti when the ambitious teen was still in high school -- and Harry James, as well as becoming a key component in Count Basie's legendary "New Testament" big band. It was circa his tenure as a producer at the Francis Albert Sinatra-owned Reprise Records label, that Hefti used his connections with Basie to score and conduct two of Sinatra's best-loved works, Sinatra and Swingin' Brass (1962) and Sinatra-Basie: An Historic Musical First (1963). Hefti somehow found the energy to cut a few LPs of his own. Jazz Pops is his second Reprise Records' platter, with Hefti leading a star-studded orchestra through a blend of his own high-profile tunes and a few concurrently well-known selections. Among the contributors are such West Coast studio session notables as Jack Sheldon (trumpet), Plas Johnson (flute), Al McKibbon (bass), and Emil Richards (vibes), with Shelly Manne (drums) and Earl Palmer splitting up duties on the skins. "Coral Reef" actually dates back a decade or so as the title track to Hefti's debut LP. In addition to the rousing call and response between the brass and rhythm sections, the upbeat and interminable catchiness immediately establishes the buoyant frolic that is inherent in Hefti's compositions. One especially key component occurs about 90 seconds into the number as Hefti shifts into a double-time rock & roll groove. The woodwind section's surreptitious vibe gives the performance the feel of providing the soundtrack to a dramatic spy-themed television show. The refreshingly laid-back approach to "Exodus" is in direct contrast to the typical remake as it places the melody into an exceedingly more affable context. The cover of André Previn's 1959 Grammy award winner "Like Young" is another prime example of Hefti's skills as a formidably interpretive talent. The relaxed -- yet never blasé -- big-band approach allows for copious interaction within the combo. Exceedingly clever is the coupling of Count Basie's unofficial theme "One O'clock Jump" with the historic Basie, Harry James, and Benny Goodman follow-up "Two O'clock Jump." Just like the A-side had, the second side of the album kicks off with a solid Hefti original. Continuing with his Basie connection is a brass happy rendering of his own catchy "Cute." Francisco Aquabella's percussive inflections during the chorus provide a nice response to the horn's captivating melody. From the Art Blakey catalog comes Bobby Timmons' immortal blues-based and moody "Moanin'." While not straying too far, Hefti brings out the very best that the tune has to offer. Similarly, the lovely Sidney Bechet standard jazz entry "Petit Fleur" is given a new lease on life. Thanks to Hefti's remarkable sensitivity, while overtly MOR, the score never loses its focus or sincerity. The album closes with one final fling from the Basie days on the languid ballad "L'il Darlin'." In 2007, Collectors' Choice Music reissued Jazz Pops (1962) on CD -- making it available for the first time in the digital domain.
Lindsay Planer, Rovi

Track Listing

  1. Coral Reef
  2. Take Five
  3. Exodus
  4. Like You
  5. One & Two O'Clock Jump
  6. Cute
  7. Moanin'
  8. Petit Fleur
  9. Li'l Darlin'
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