Of the three recordings Junior Mance made for Capitol, two were within a big-band format. Straight Ahead is the second of the two large-group recordings. The band is populated by some of the top studio musicians and bandmembers on the West Coast, including Don Fagerquist and Pete Candoli on trumpet, Milt Bernhart on trombone, and Shelly Manne on drums. Bob Bain fronts the group and wrote the charts. The major difference from the previous recording is that it's all brass here; no reeds are present. Combining Mance's natural blues-inflected piano with a big horn sound is a true aural treat. The result is a musical conversation with each side taking turns playing on or over the melody line. On "Li'l Darlin'," the band plays the familiar slow-drag melody while Mance improvises on top. There's a heated call and response on "Happy Time," with Mance going out swinging against blaring riffs by the brass. A similar swinging conversation takes place on "The Late, Late Show," with the band kicking off the cut with a roaring trumpet call. Usually a large-ensemble format doesn't allow for much diversion from the charts. Here it's clear that the band stayed with the charts, but Mance was allowed a good deal of leeway in his playing. He could respond to the call of the band as he saw fit. The result is a dynamic session combining the best of a disciplined brass assembly with the unfettered play of a top jazz improvisor. Some enterprising label should take the first album Mance made with this group, Get Ready, Set, Jump!, combine it with this one, and release them together on a CD.
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AllMusic Review by Dave Nathan