In his spirited, insightful liner notes for Mazel Tov Kocktail!, the bold, deliriously hard swinging, sultry and sensual sixth album by his Big Band Jazz Machine, Ira B. Liss quotes the legendary Glenn Miller: “A band ought to have a sound of its own. It ought to have a personality.”
Starting out as the ever-evolving ensemble’s baritone sax player, the prolific bandleader and producer has guided that process of achieving just that through four plus decades of personnel comings and goings since launching the group as a student vehicle in the late 70s.
The clever title, a nod to raising a toast to their 40th anniversary, may inspire listeners to think there’s a Jewish cultural leaning to the musical flow – and that’s delightfully true on the title track, a whimsical, percussive and wildly danceable klezmer-like piece penned by composer/arranger in residence Dan Radlauer, featuring him on accordion and April Leslie on clarinet.
The rest of the set, Liss guides the well-oiled, gleefully rambunctious 20-plus piece soul-inflected jazz “machine” through a vibrant flow of other Radlauer originals and classics by legends – from the gorgeous Janet Hammer vocal features “I Wish You Love” and “Where or When” to Chick Corea’s brisk, fun-filled “High Wire” (debuting Carly Ines’ sassy powerhouse of a voice) and Duke Ellington’s elegant “Love You Madly.”
Another Radlauer original, the funky strut “Bass: The Final Frontier,” is tailor made for legendary guest bassist Nathan East to do what he does best in an unconstructed way. Another name familiar to smooth jazz audiences, saxophonist Andrew Neu, continues to flex his formidable large ensemble muscles, penning the fiery opening track “Gimme That” and snagging himself a wildly improvisational solo midway through.
As with most transcendent big band projects, the breakneck emotional roller coaster has some glorious stops along the way featuring standout solos by certain members – most prominently, saxophonist David Castel De Oro, pianist Steve Sibley and flutist/saxophonist Greg Armstrong. It’s worth raising a glass to as we look forward to the next 40 years!