Rich Willey, Down & Dirty and Conspiracy (Double Album Review)

by Nolan DeBuke

Composer and most importantly trumpeter Rich Willey has put forth two expert recordings in 2019. Before we could get to the first Down & Dirty, this prolific artist has rounded up the season with his second offering Conspiracy. Both feature stellar lineups with mainstay jazz artists and arrangers.  Willey knows how to bring the best choice personnel together to convey his seasoned compositions that offer a maturity of complexity, coupled with hard-hitting musicality.  What Willey’s tunes also offer is a nostalgia for melody, something sorely missing in today’s modern compositions. Willey understands the depth of what is needed to illuminate a great melody, and how to fill it with prodigious performances.

His first release Down & Dirty features a bop-themed persona that Willey coordinated arrangements with Wally Minko, Gordon Goodwin, Michael Abene and one by Chris Walden. There is also a gem of a standard “Old Folks.” The arrangement and playing on “Old Folks” is of note here. The counterpoint is simply gorgeous, the lushness of the horn parts with delicate renderings of the voicings that shade the richness of the melody is top shelf. The muted horn soli show outstanding orchestration and textural balance. Each player treats the song with reverence and the bass trumpet solo by Willey is dazzling. It is so nice to hear this seldom heard instrument played with such a beautiful tone and dexterity.  Willey evokes meaningful growls from the bass trumpet, his tone and elongated notes will bring shivers.  The treatment of “Old Folks,” is truly respectful and done in a way that brings out the gleaming beauty of the tune.

Another standout composition on Down & Dirty is the electrifying “Walter the Ferret,” a meld of what one expects to hear from a Big Band with a heavy heaping of contemporary modernism.  An electrified guitar by Andrew Synowiec, adds a bite to the tune, his modernist tone adds a tasty flavoring to the opening.  Another highlight on this tune is Peter Erskine (drums) and Joey De Leon (percussion), the two add a buoyancy to the rhythm that gives the tune a good feeling and funky groove.  A rhythmic figure midpoint adds a nice feel change.  The solos are handled by Bob Sheppard on tenor sax, who mixes in funky jazz rhythms and the bebop language into his solo.  Wally Minko chimes in with a synthesizer solo that gives the tune a contemporary aesthetic.  While Willey focuses on a melodic flugelhorn solo, outlining the changes and adding to the contemporary rhythm.

On Conspiracy, Willey’s tunes are once again front and center but with an entirely different line up this time and a focus on the danceability of jazz and its merit to even the non-jazz listener.  Willey even calls the band the Boptism Funk Band this time, further illustrating the difference between the two albums.  From the onset, there is no question this is going to be a funktastic listen.  “Mr. Magoo,” opens up the album with a bang.  Immediately evident is the solid thump of Mike Boone’s bass, this man has serious funk in his bones, locking tightly with drummer Byron “Wookie” Landham. The two have the funk in hand for each player to build upon and build they do.  Willey nails the solo on trumpet, his ability to lace bebop lines into a funk feel is of note.  Tenor saxist David Mann delivers a warmly toned solo that lends a bit of modernistic sound, filled with arpeggiated runs that sting with muscularity, but it is drummer Landham that sends it home, with a precision drum solo well played and with brevity, adding to the textural excitement of the solos.

“Eenie Meanie Beanie Weeny,” the name made me chuckle, but the playing stole the show.  Willey exclaims the title and you know you are in for a fun ride. This track has an all-star cast trading back and forth with Willey on bass trumpet and John Swana on valve trombone, the two get down and gritty.  Guitarist Dave Stryker steps forward with a well-executed melodic solo, creating a hip transition to tenor saxist David Mann who displays what is best about funk and saxophone, his lines drive forward and then relax, then he goes in for the attack with an outstanding tone and playful articulation.  Also, not to be missed on this track is Bobby Floyd on organ, he colorizes the track and gives it an authentic funk sound, with meaningful comping behind the solos, he adds that secret sauce in the mix.

Willey is putting forth a serious catalog of originals.  His ideas are grounded in the tradition, while still sounding fresh and modern. He can certainly pick personnel that exemplifies his ideas with impassioned performances too.  No need to decide which album you might like better; Willey exemplifies he is more than apt at tackling any style. His music personifies the diversity of jazz on each tune and each is its own journey.  Well worth picking up a copy of both titles for your collection.

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