Al Belletto


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Of the many jazz musicians from New Orleans, Al Belletto is one of the least known nationally, but he's been exploring the traditional and modern jazz scene for many decades. This welcome volume of big-band music -- recorded in concert at the Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans -- shows him to be not only an able leader, but a distinctive alto saxophonist as well. He has the flexibility of a rubber band, and his group responds to every command, fueled by the great work of drummer John Vidacovich, trombonist Rick Trolsen, baritone saxophonist Cindy Mayes, tenor Ray Moore, trumpeter Bobby Campo, and leader/lead altoist Frank Mayes. Other members include second alto saxophonist Steve Giarrantano, tenor Michael Pierce, trumpeters Jamil Sharif, Erik Jekabson, and A.J. Pittman, trombonists Steve Suter and Brian O'Neill, bassist Ed Wise, and pianist John Mahoney. There are several tips of the hat to the masters here. Ellington is well represented by the serene "In a Sentimental Mood," a slightly subpar "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," the lesser-known "Serenade to Sweden" (featuring Campo's bright lead and Giarrantano on flute), and a typically pristine "Satin Doll." The Basie influence crops up on the first three numbers: Jimmy Guinn's "Relaxin'," which has been Belletto's theme song for decades; a swinging, witty arrangement of "Pennies From Heaven," with a long alto solo from Belletto; and trombonist Phil Wilson's "Basically Blues," which he penned for Buddy Rich. (It should be pointed out that many of these tunes were done for years by Belletto's sextet, of which Wilson was a member.) A rousing "Jumpin' at the Woodside" shows another side of Basie. The title track is precious, a Will Hudson chart written for Jimmie Lunceford that has an urgent jungle rhythm and a smattering of trombone solos. Mahoney's hard-swinging "No Cares" is another standout, as is the jazz samba "Alegria," penned by Belletto sextet drummer Bobby Breaux. There are only two downsides to the album: The sappy Melissa Manchester/Carole Bayer Sager pop tune "Come in From the Rain" seems totally out of place here, and on numerous occasions the mics aren't hot when the musicians are soloing. Those quibbles aside, this is a terrific encapsulation of Belletto's musical philosophy. He's truly one of the hidden icons of jazz. Log on and dig his swing.

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