Cellar Music

Jim Rotondi (trumpet) with Jazz Orchestra arranged and conducted by Jakob Helling, with Danny Grissett (piano) and guests Steve Davis (trombone) and Dick Oatts (soprano sax).

Recorded September 19/20, 2021, Vienna

Montana-born Jim Rotondi cites Clifford Brown as his first influence. He cut his teeth around New York playing trumpet in boppish clubs and the big bands of Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton and Bob Mintzer.

He then moved from NYC to Graz in Austria, where he is currently Professor of Jazz Trumpet at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts. This CD was recorded in Vienna with a big band and strings; most of the 13 tracks are Rotondi’s own compositions with arrangements by German-born Jakob Helling.

As you would expect from a Uni professor the trumpet playing is impeccable. Rotondi is clearly a virtuoso, sounding sometimes more like a muted Miles with Gil Evans than Clifford, and other times a bit too fluffy bumblebee for my taste.

Not musical fluffs I hasten to add – I’m trying to describe his Harry James speed fingering with a breathy sound. Doubtless by intent, the electronic piano sounds very electronic. In contrast, Interlude is a luscious ballad with ‘real’ piano from Danny Grissett and warming trumpet from Rotondi.

The band arrangements (In Graz, for example) are intricate, racy and busy.  The band is stuffed with musical ability and terrifyingly tight. On several tracks I felt I was listening to Hollywood heist movie music without the movie. There is a lot of what now seems to be obligatory for European big bands – awkward time signaturing instead of straight 4/4. Is this perhaps a Brussels EU requirement?

The 7-minute opener, Ruth, starts cute and light, and builds from there with the brass and flutes. Dark Blue is a sleepy ballad that gets heavy while showcasing Rotondi’s prodigious technique. On some tracks such as Designated Hitter and For Curtis (with Danny Grissett’s solid piano again) there are times when things tantalisingly click into a groove.

I would have liked the grooves to last longer. On Happy Feet the band builds to a lovely, majestic shout climax. Miller Time builds nicely too. I wish there were more of what some listeners will deride as ‘traditional big band’ style. I guess I am just old-fashioned.

With this in mind, I made a point of checking that, like everything else I have recently reviewed, this album is available on Spotify. That means you can sample online for free, albeit in medium quality with destructively interrupting adverts. If you like what you hear then you buy the physical CD and get to listen to the recording as the producers intended. I see this free taster strategy as a win/win for music.