Monday, August 26, 2013


Like a trickster in a West African folk tale, the blues can come in a multiplicity of guises, from a soul-bearing lament on a bottleneck guitar to a buoyant blast of brass on a ballroom bandstand. Trombonist Mike Treni, a well-traveled composer who has reemerged in recent years as one of the most resourceful arrangers on the jazz scene, knows that above all the blues is a communal celebration, and he gives the stellar cast of improvisers on his new album Pop-Culture Blues plenty to party with. Slated for release on June 25, 2013, Treni's fifth big band album offers a sweeping historical overview of the blues' pervasive presence in post-World War II American jazz, while suggesting that we need look no further for the soul that's absent in so much contemporary culture.
"I've always been fascinated with the blues from a player's perspective; there are so many different things you can do with the form," says Treni, who composed all the pieces to evoke or pay tribute to jazz masters who have fruitfully explored the blues. "The title isn't exactly a commentary, but a lot of artists and musicians don't want to know the accomplishments of the past. I don't have a problem with people doing their own thing, but not with ignoring the craft."

A savvy concept album that wears its theme with grace and style, Pop-Culture Blues is a 10-movement suite that explores modern jazz's rapidly evolving compositional styles through the lens of the blues. A project devoted to investigating the elasticity of the blues is promising to begin with (see: Coltrane, John Coltrane Plays the Blues). What makes Treni's music so enthralling is that he has attracted a jazz orchestra laden with world-class section players and improvisers who can express themselves with authority in an array of blues idioms.

The album opens with Treni's "One for Duke," a piece inspired by the Maestro, Duke Ellington, who found an inexhaustible well of inspiration in the blues. A swaggering polytonal number that provides tenor sax legend Jerry Bergonzi with a lush but indeterminate harmonic field over which to gambol, the tune gets things started with a rush of adrenaline. From the heady opener Treni charges headlong into the suite with the raucously riffing "BQE Blues," a tribute to Count Basie's powerful New Testament Band, featuring a searing tenor saxophone solo by Frank Elmo (a versatile New York cat who should be heard more in jazz contexts).

"The closest band I can think of where you have this kind flexibility are early Thad Jones/Mel Lewis bands," Treni says. "The breadth of ability to cover various styles is mind blowing."

As no modern jazz composer made more vivid use of the trombone than Charles Mingus, Treni picks the perfect spot to step forward with a lowdown gritty solo on his Mingusian "Minor Blues." He tips his hat to Coltrane on "Summer Blues," a modal vehicle for two of the ensembles most potent players, Bergonzi and powerhouse trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, who's recorded widely with George Benson and performed with heavyweights such as Lou Donaldson, Slide Hampton, Wynton Marsalis, Rufus Reid, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Michael Brecker.

The Brecker Brothers inspired Treni's "Mr. Funky Blues," a sassy, brassy modal workout featuring some appropriately tough tenor work by Frank Elmo and a pungently expressive solo by the great Bob Ferrel on a fearsome buccin trombone. Treni closes the album with the title track, a wide-ranging and supremely hip chart that breaks the orchestra up into various units and then regroups in full force.

Just when it seems like the band must have revealed all its treasures, a new array of solos highlights masters such as tenor saxophonist Ken Hitchcock (whose credits include recordings with several of the legends evoked on this album, namely Charles Mingus and Gerry Mulligan), and the supremely swinging drummer Ron Vincent, a longtime Mulligan collaborator who's also recorded with Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, Bill Charlap, John Lewis, and Slide Hampton, among many others.

"Each guy has a niche, and on every tune someone can stand up and play with complete authority," Treni says. "It's like having a baseball team with a deep bench. I thought a lot about which guys to feature, and put them in spots that showed off their strengths."

Pop-Culture Blues is the latest and most ambitious missive from an artist in the midst of a sensational resurgence. After a promising start on the New York scene as part of a cadre of brilliant young improvisers, Treni eventually walked away from music in the late 1980s to pursue an entrepreneurial vision as the founder of a company specializing in innovative wireless audio and language interpretation systems (he holds two patents in wireless technology).

A decade ago he returned to jazz, his first passion. Working in partnership with his equally gifted producer, Roy Nicolosi, who's also an accomplished reed player, he gradually assembled the Michael Treni Big Band, a jazz orchestra loaded with heavyweight players. With critically acclaimed albums such as 2007's Detour, 2009's Turnaround, and 2012's Boys Night Out, Treni has taken his rightful place in the jazz firmament. As Mark Gilbert wrote about Boys Night Out: "5 out of 5 starsŠ. Smartly played swinging set of standards and originals with Jerry Bergonzi. Outstanding." While his reemergence is a welcome development, given his background it's not a surprise.

Treni earned a full scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music, but instead enrolled at the University of Miami, where he displayed such prowess that the school recruited him for the faculty at 19. Before long, he launched the band Kaleidoscope with classmate Pat Metheny. By the mid-1970s he was a rising player in New York City keeping company with other prodigious young artists like Tom Harrell, John McNeil, Paul McCandless and Earl Gardner. But when Treni lost the opportunity to tour Europe with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, his ambition took him in another direction. Recommended for the Messengers by his University of Miami buddy Bobby Watson, Treni impressed Blakey at an on-stage audition at the Village Vanguard.

"After the set Art came up and gave me a bear hug and said, 'Damn man, you can play!'" Treni recalls. "I finished the week with him and everything seemed set for the European tour, but when I didn't hear anything I called Bobby. It turned out that Curtis Fuller heard about the tour and asked if he could do it, so I didn't get to go. That snapped something in me. If I wasn't going to play with Blakey, I was going to pursue a career as a writer and commercial arranger."

Treni brings all his far-flung experiences to bear in Pop-Culture Blues, a tremendously rewarding and entertaining album that highlights the enduring wisdom of Art Blakey's first impression.

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