Music Review: The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra's 'Rhapsody'

Mar 22, 2016

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra
"Rhapsody"

A few years ago, I worked as a concierge for a corporate hotel downtown. Guests would ask, “Does Kansas City still do the jazz thing?” I would laugh and open my drawer of cards. “Oh, do we,” I'd say, before packing them like mules with fliers for shows at local clubs. “We had no idea!” they'd exclaim. “Kansas City still has the best jazz in the world,” I’d say.

Admittedly, I'm a loyal hometown snob. But I also knew about the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, the current archetype for our city's signature art form. The group made its debut in 2006 with “Take One,” followed by “Live at the Plaza.” Now, after almost a decade, there’s “Rhapsody.”

Artistic Director Clint Ashlock has lovingly manipulated the versatile prowess of 31 of the city's brightest jazz musicians. His arrangements are fresh, cunning and innovative while retaining the anachronistic, boozy 4/4 swing that made Kansas City famous.

“Rhapsody” is like a nesting doll, each of its eight tracks distinct and ornate. The near-title track, “Rhapsody in Blue,” is an epic, 27-minute journey through the Gershwin classic. Joe Cartwright's piano plants us in a smoky ramshackle speakeasy before the horns whisk us away to a velvet-curtained nightclub. The entire piece is one of transition: Violinist Adam Galblum has a casual chat with a flute before Cartwright's fingers shout down the ivories; the orchestra slays the salsa for one section, then somehow becomes a symphony for another, then slides into that Kansas City shuffle.

The other songs on the record don't reach the marathon length of “Rhapsody in Blue,” but the intensity level rarely wavers. On “Alfie,” Ron Gutierrez's voice has the caliber and enunciation of a Broadway singer, full of vibrato and emotion. Trombonist Jeff Hamer handles grace notes with ease for his turn on “Emily” (a Mandel/Mercer piece Hamer dedicated to his daughter of the same name); his horn breathes nostalgia for a rainy day in 1940s New York, replete with a bottle of gin, a Victrola and nothing to do.

“Embraceable You” is the showpiece diamond on this feathered headband of a record. Vocalist Kathleen Holeman is a pitch queen, masterfully filling her crescendos and decrescendos with emotion and nailing every one of her changes in sync with Ashlock's butterfly-winged scales on the flugelhorn.

For the concluding track, Gershwin's “I Got Rhythm,” John Kizilarmut commands us to stand up and dance with his first five drum strikes. The horn section comes in strong and maintains with a subtle, intricate blending of scales and harmonies and energetic, bright solos from tenor saxophonist Brad Gregory and trumpeter David Aaberg, while Cartwright’s crisp, capricious playing reminds us why we've been listening to him for thirty years. The song is a perfect ending to an opus of arrangement and musical achievement.

I don't work as a hotel concierge anymore. But anyone wearing my old ill-fitting pantsuit who isn't handing out fliers for the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra isn't doing their job.

Monique Gabrielle Salazar is a Kansas City freelance writer, artist and producer. She can be reached at mgswrites@gmail.com.