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  • Jonathan Widran

THE 14 JAZZ ORCHESTRA, Islands

While our modern ways of consuming music via streaming sometimes relegate cover art and liner notes to secondary considerations, for those that care about such things, it bears mentioning that there’s a world of difference between the imaging composer/arranger Dan Bonsanti and the 14 Jazz Orchestra offered on their rousing 2021 album Cartoon Bebop (featuring semi=animated images of some of the players on the cover) and the impressionistic, orange/blue earthtones on the cover of the star-studded ensemble’s latest robust, multi-faceted excursion with the simple title Islands.

Unfolding the CD package, we’re embraced with poignant must-read liner notes that may explain the subtler tones in the artwork. The sweeping 11-track collection, featuring three colorful originals (including a spirited reworking of “All of Me” titled “Part of Me”) from pianist Mike Levine and fresh and imaginative arrangements of classics by McCoy Tyner (“Man From Tanganyika”), Chick Corea (“Bud Powell”), Pat Metheny (“Missouri Uncompromised”), David Liebman (“Loft Dance”) and Randy Newman (“When She Loved Me”), is an all-out, soulfully rendered dedication to and celebration of life for Dan’s brother Neal Bonsanti (1942-2023) – a first call multi-woodwind specialist and founding member of The 14 Jazz Orchestra whom Dan calls “my 1st music inspiration.”


While Neal was able to record on several tracks of Cartoon Bebop, he was too ill to contribute to Islands – so Dan Bonsanti re-arranged and re-orchestrated his arrangement of the Newman Toy Story 2 song in his brother’s memory, with longtime 14 Jazz featured guest Ed Calle on sax. Another special tribute on Islands is a whimsical, fast swinging romp through “Jitterbug Waltz” (featuring Calle on soprano and Mike Brignola on bass clarinet) dedicated to famed pianist and educator Vince Maggio (1937-2021), who once played the tune in a trio setting with Ira Sullivan and Joe Diorio. Fortunately, the sorrow Bonsanti and his crew feel about these passings only fuel their desire to embrace the preciousness of life through vibrant music all the more.


Though Calle is called a featured artist and luminaries Calle, Randy Bernsen, Mark Egan, Peter Erskine, Will Lee, David Liebman and Mike Mainieri are billed as “special guests,” they are every bit as intrinsic to the alternating simmering and fiery big band fusion and solo improvisational genius of the 14 Jazz Orchestra as the other 20 members.


While the emotional focus is often on the spirits of the departed, it’s worth noting that with this album, the group marks ten years since students and faculty at the University of Miami came together to create its ever-evolving original magic. Though its members are now scattered throughout the country, Mike Levine – also a skilled engineer - has been able to create a seamless vibe from digital tracks that makes Islands and their previous three albums sound like live in the studio recordings.

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