Long-time jazz educator, head of Jazz Studies at the University of Minnesota, renowned arranger for the Glenn Miller Orchestra and more, Dean Sorenson is also an accomplished trombonist and bandleader who finally found his way to the recording studio. With esteemed Twin Cities colleagues (Steve Kenny on trumpet, David Milne on sax, Chris Lomheim on piano, Tom Lewis on bass, and Phil Hey on drums), the Dean Sorenson Sextet sounds like a long-running unit on their debut, Colors of the Soul (Kjos Music).
“The front line of trumpet, tenor sax, and trombone has deep roots in jazz and this recording offers an eclectic blend of composition and improvisation,” notes Sorenson. And as clearly demonstrated on this recording, this configuration, with these musicians, offers a sparkling blend of big band harmonies and small band space. “I love this sized ensemble,” says Dean, “because I can get a nice color palette with the compositions, but there is still plenty of space for soloists. The big band, of course, offers myriad color opportunities, but the weight of the ensemble inhibits too much soloing. Few composers, I think, achieve a real good balance between writing and improvising in a big band. Maria Schneider, I think, does this better than anyone in history.”
Sorenson wrote all eleven compositions for Colors of the Soul, noting that “some of these began as big band charts, and some were written specifically for small group. I do plan on having big band charts available for all of these pieces very soon.” Most tracks are bright and up-tempo, and perhaps no other local album (at least in recent memory) has shown the feisty side of pianist Chris Lomheim as well as this project. In sum, it’s 70 minutes of great ensemble jazz as best defines “modern mainstream.”
The opening “Ozark Moon” sets the pace for the album, like a big band chart handed off to the first chairs only–upbeat and horn-centric with romping basslines. Trombone-trumpet harmonies give way to Kenny’s solo, moving next to Lomheim’s bouncing bop that turns the heat way up, and closing with a fiery burst from drummer Hey. At high velocity, “Better Late Than Never” models ensemble communication at its best, each horn player deconstructing the journey in turn while Tom Lewis’s basslines serve as a driving force throughout, in tandem with Hey and never overpowering the whole. The horns again provide a sunny foundation for “Cool City” before Lomheim takes over like Bill Evans on uppers. There’s some tropical breeze flowing through Dave Milne’s twisting solo and virtuosic blowing from start to finish, with just enough dissonance in the harmonies to keep ears on full alert. On “Port of Call,” Milne and then Lomheim open the door to a frenzied outburst from Phil Hey, who calls the horns back for a the final lap.
Steve Kenny shows off the magic of his hybrid FLUMPET™ on “Cat’s Eye,” with a bit of tropical sway; an assertive solo from Tom Lewis is followed by a controlled yet thundering mallet interlude from Hey. “The Real Deal” also highlights Kenny’s acrobatic horn as well as Milne’s sinewy tenor, with a strong undercurrent from Lewis and the always-present generator, Phil Hey. “Kristi’s Waltz” has the touch and melody of a jazz classic, summed by Dean with the trombone’s most soulful reach.
The swampy “Lace ‘Em Up” features an ongoing murky piano vamp while the sextet in full slides into a bouncy ride. Sorenson takes the first solo spin, like riding over a bumpy road that somehow makes you want to go back for one more bounce. Kenny obliges with a free-wheeling excursion, while Lomheim smoothes out the bumps without giving up the thrill. Hey trades bars with Sorenson and Kenny, finally inviting the band to one last joyride that ends back in the swamp, at the starting line. “Harbor Shuffle” is a joyful foot-tapper, while the closing “M Bistro” adds a touch of Crescent City with a virtuosic display from Sorenson, then Milne, and a honky-tonk vibe from Lomheim.
All this excitement might be too much of a good thing if not for the perfect placement of a ballad midway through. “The Night Is Right” arrives just when you need a quiet interlude to catch your breath. Here’s the familiar gentle side of Lomheim, and the dark and beautiful side of Dean Sorenson in a long solo over the sympathetic rhythm team. Hey maintains a luxurious tingling backdrop throughout.
There are many colors to the soul of Dean Sorenson, and thankfully he has turned some of his attention now to writing music that he himself will play and direct. Few bands together for such a short time –one public gig– would have had the nerve to go into the studio with a pile of new tunes. But then, few bands together for any period of time have the talent and experience of the Dean Sorenson Sextet, or the writing of a Dean Sorenson to make that talent shine.