In a rave review I wrote a few years ago for Everything Happens for a Reason, Andrew Neu’s fourth solo smooth/urban jazz oriented album, I cleverly disguised my frustration that this versatile, incredibly inventive saxophonist was getting a bit lost in the shuffle among the so called genre A-listers. I urged listeners to complement their daily doses of “Koz, Mindi, Gerald, Kirk, et al. . .” with something truly Neu. My other concern was that Neu is so well known as a sideman for legendary vocalists – Diane Schuur, Smokey Robinson, and especially Bobby Caldwell – that he might not be able to devote enough time to developing a solo career.
With his big, bold, brassy – okay, let’s just say it, “badass”! - and dynamically produced new album Catwalk: The Big Band Side of Andrew Neu, the saxophonist has allayed my fears big time with a truly epic work that spotlights his multiple skills as a large ensemble composer, arranger and soloist. Produced by bass great Brian Bromberg, the 11-track collection features eight fresh “new-Neu compositions,’ colorful re-imaginings of “Body and Soul” (done as a peppy, free-flowing samba!), “What Is this Thing Called Love,” and “Cinema Paradiso” and incredible solo action by Bromberg; trumpeters Wayne Bergeron, Rick Braun, Randy Brecker and Michael Stever; vibraphonist Craig Fundyga; and saxmen Gordon Goodwin, Eric Marienthal and Bob Mintzer. Including Neu, the ensemble has 14 horns and a four piece rhythm section.
True to its title, the opening track “Juggernaut” swings aggressively with a percussive horn section carrying the melody a long ways, before receding for Andrew Lippmann’s brash trombone solo and Neu’s feisty straight ahead improvisation. “Zebrano” puts the ensemble’s Latin sizzle vibe front and center, its swirling hurricanes bookending funky solos by Neu and Brecker as polyrhythmic drummer/percussionist Jamey Tate dares them to keep up. From there, the horn-driven dynamics rise and fall in a series of playful mood swings, from the seductive cool of “Catwalk” (featuring a Michael Stever trumpet solo) to the gentle tandem romantic graces of “Body and Soul” and “My Dear.”
Neu shares some of his most powerful straight ahead improvisational chops on the booming swing tune “What Is this Thing Called Love,” while “Wasamba” is a bright burst of brassy sun, snazzed up by one of Bromberg’s trademark wild piccolo bass solos. Other highlights include a sensual stroll through Ennio Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso” (which lets us know just how incredible Rick Braun is on traditional material as well) and the barn-burning jazz-rock closer “Alpha Dog,” highlighted by Matt Hornbeck’s blistering electric guitar and another “beyond genius” solo by Bromberg.
As expansive and impressive a feat as Catwalk is, those who know Neu primarily for his more R&B oriented playing might wonder if this is just a wild one-off. Happily, no. In a recent interview, he recalls that his very first introduction to jazz was his school jazz band, and his fascination for sitting in a great section is as strong as ever, on par with his embrace of being a soloist. He has been playing and writing for big bands longer than any other endeavor, and he began rehearsing his own big band as far back as 2011.
He adds that he couldn’t be more excited to pursue this new direction in his career as a jazz artist. All of this is splendid to hear in light of everything we’re treated to up in the spirited realms of the Catwalk.