Michael Doherty’s Music Log
Wayne Alpern: “Skeleton” (2019/2020) CD Review
Wayne Alpern is a composer and arranger based in New York. His new release, Skeleton, finds him mostly arranging the material of other composers, including some well-known and beloved pieces such as “Take Five,” “Blue Moon” and “If I Only Had A Brain,” and mixing in more modern tunes too. In fact, there is only one original composition on this disc, which also happens to be one of the best tracks. The group assembled for this album includes Noah Bless, Mike Boschen, Michael Davis, Nick Grinder, Jason Jackson, Matt McDonald and James Rogers on trombone; Sam Hoyt and David Smith on trumpet and flugelhorn; Billy Test on piano; Evan Gregor on bass; and Josh Bailey on drums.
The CD opens with a cover of “Domino,” a song by Jessie J. When the track begins, there is the noise of a crowd, and it seems like a live album, but that background noise soon dies away as the song gets going. This tune is a fun combination of jazz and disco, music to get your toes tapping and your body swaying. I love the way the horns fly over that strong disco bass line, particularly that section in the second half of the track. I hadn’t heard Jessie J’s original rendition before, but I have now, and I certainly prefer this version by Wayne Alpern. Toward the end, we hear the crowd again, which feels odd. That’s followed by a good version of Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology,” which is basically all horns. It has a cool, loose, almost improvised vibe, which gives it a fun feel. There is some nice, unobtrusive drum work below the horns.
The first jazz album I ever owned was The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, which features that fantastic recording of “Take Five.” It’s probably impossible to beat Dave Brubeck on that tune, but Wayne Alpern’s arrangement here is excellent. The horns have most of the power in this version, driving things upward and outward at times, and there is also plenty of great work on drums. Something I’ve always loved about this tune is that intriguing beat, the room the drummer has to get a bit creative, and Josh Bailey delivers some wonderful stuff here. That’s followed by a completely delightful and unusual take on “Blue Moon.” It feels almost like a totally vocal rendition, except that the voices are horns. Seriously, it’s like an arrangement for an a cappella group. There are even finger snaps at times. I love this.
This group of musicians then delivers a seriously fun and groovy version of “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” a tune written by Joe Zawinul and originally recorded by Cannonball Adderley. I really like this version. Everyone is grooving here, but it is Billy Test’s work on piano that really makes this rendition something special. It has a different ending than usual, surprisingly concluding with drums. Things take a romantic turn with a nice rendition of Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.” Ah yes, this is how I felt when I met the love of my life. I thought I had known love, but it was nothing like this. Things were different, and still are now, ten years later. I’m still in “this helpless haze.” I particularly like the bass on this track. There is also a whimsical character to some of the work of the horns, which I enjoy.
We then get the album’s one original track, and it is an absolute delight. Titled “Blue Bones,” it immediately sets itself apart with its sense of humor and its style. There is something theatrical about it, like it should back a routine by some beloved comedian of a bygone time, or should be featured in a period film. This is one of my personal favorites on this album. It is followed by “Happy,” a song written by Pharrell Williams, and one I was not previously familiar with. Apparently, it was featured in a children’s animated movie. It has a rather cheerful rhythm and vibe, appropriate for its title, and includes a brief bass solo. Wayne Alpern chooses to follow that modern song with Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned,” a playful choice, as it begins with the line “I am not such a clever one about the latest fads.” I really like this rendition, its pacing, the way it progresses, and its energy. It has a sudden ending.
Wayne Alpern delivers a sweet and light and cheerful rendition of “At Last.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard this song approached quite like this before, but it works surprisingly well. It has a rhythm that will likely have you smiling before long, and then the horns at times blast over that. This is a completely enjoyable rendition. “Life is like a song,” indeed! That is followed by another fun track, a goofy and playful take on “If I Only Had A Brain.” What a pleasure it is to listen to this rendition. The disc then takes another unexpected turn, toward the classical, with a track titled “Handle With Care,” music by George Frideric Handel. “I.G.Y.” is a song from Donald Fagen’s first solo album, released in 1982 (following the breakup of Steely Dan). This rendition has something of a reggae rhythm. The album then closes with a sweet rendition of Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring,” featuring the horn section.
CD Track List
- Take Five
- Blue Moon
- Mercy Mercy Mercy
- I’ve Never Been In Love Before
- Blue Bones
- I’m Old Fashioned
- At Last
- If I Only Had A Brain
- Handle With Care
- Joy Spring