Such Sweet Thunder
Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk and … Dolly Parton? The mix may sound mad, but for the most part, it provides a compelling songbook for Vance Thompson’s Five Plus Six. Trumpeter Thompson is best-known as the director of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. His new band, Five Plus Six, consists of the Marble City Five, Thompson’s straightahead quintet, teamed with six horn players who are recent graduates or current students at the University of Tennessee. On their first CD Such Sweet Thunder, the ensemble interprets tunes by the above-mentioned jazz giants as well as Tennessee native and country-music icon Parton. All of Thompson’s arrangements are interesting, and a few are quite inspired.
The group delivers on Thompson’s concept: to retain the power of a big band while exhibiting greater improvisational freedom than is possible in the 18-member KJO. Five Plus Six frequently sounds like an Ellington-led troupe. Musicianship throughout is stellar, particularly from core instrumentalists Thompson, saxophonist Greg Tardy and pianist Keith Brown, son of underrated pianist Donald Brown and the arranger of two tracks.
Inspired by soul singer Bettye LaVette’s version, the ensemble’s read of Parton’s “Little Sparrow” is dramatic but overlong. The Ellington covers, however, are terrific, especially the elegant title track and an infectious, fast-tempo take on “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” A rendition of Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” is both sumptuous and Ellington-esque, with superb playing by Brown. Thompson and company imbue Monk’s “Four in One” with a funky, contemporary-jazz feel, while the Appalachian folksong “He’s Gone Away” makes for a sentimental album closer.
Musicians who lead community big bands are among the hardest-working people in jazz. They raise funds, apply for grants, mentor musicians, arrange music and persuade famous artists to perform with their bands. That Thompson is so successful in pulling off this side project demonstrates his deep commitment to the music. —Ed Kopp