The fact that pianist/arranger Dan Roberts’ name is in the title of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra’s first (non-Christmas) album by itself speaks volumes. The BCJO pointedly named themselves for their venue of residence, not its co-leaders—trumpeter Joe Herrera and baritone saxophonist Brad Linde—or featured soloists. He must do something extra special to warrant billing in Bohemiana: The Compositions and Arrangements of Dan Roberts, right?
The answer is an ecstatic yes. Roberts is no newbie arranger, penning years’ worth of charts for U.S. Army Band ensembles, as well as local artists like vocalist Lena Seikaly. But his writing for the BCJO is something else again: stunningly creative, smart, lyrical, and swinging like mad. Admittedly, that’s easier with some tunes than others. As the name of Thelonious Monk’s “Gallop’s Gallop” implies, for example, boisterousness is baked into it, as are the smarts and lyricism.
Ah, but that’s where the creativity enters in: Roberts makes it a feature for the saxophones, but can’t neglect the BCJO’s peerlessly burnished brasses. They make witty, pithy responses to the reeds’ calls in the melody—not unlike the party chants on a Parliament-Funkadelic record. (Linde adds to that feel with a low, carnal growl on his bari solo.) He also uses the six-part sax voicings to thicken the already dense harmonies, and then, in the ending reprise, brings the brasses in again to thicken them further still.
At other points, though, Roberts has his work cut out for him. As he points out in his liner notes, Brad Mehldau’s chromatic composition “Trailer Park Ghost” was conceived and created as a solo piano piece—and a pianist might be tempted to highlight himself on it. But this particular pianist isn’t heard at all until nearly a third of the way in, and then only as chordal support for guitarist Josh Walker and trumpeter Griffith Kazmierczak’s incisive solos.
Instead, Roberts attacks the piece with acuity, breaking it down into component parts for horns, rhythm section, and reeds, often voicing Walker’s guitar with the last. The one piece he writes for a featured soloist is “Autumn Nocturne,” a standard that trumpeter Mike “Bags” Davis consumes with both passion and zeal. The pianist isn’t entirely egoless, though: Roberts takes the album’s first solo, an interpolation on Seikaly’s enchanting “Written in the Stars” that maintains the song’s cadence while retaining virtually nothing of its melody.
The album’s centerpiece, of course, is “Bohemiana:” Roberts’s three-part original suite that adopts the sonata’s fast-slow-fast structure. Part I is a convincing swing-era throwback, from the percussive riffs of its theme to the language of Kazmierczak and alto saxophonist Marty Nau’s improvisations (not to mention Walker’s light Freddie Green-isms in accompanying them); part II a moving, delicate ballad with Roberts playing a twinkly music-box solo. Part III is nearly a rocker—as filtered through Duke Ellington, with a tune both hook-filled and intellectually intriguing and barn-burning solos from tenor saxophonist Xavier Perez (in fascinating contrast to the preceding narrative poem from trumpeter Leo Maxey) and drummer Kevin McDonald.
It’s intended as a memoir of sorts to the band’s six-year Bohemian Caverns residency. Most of those sets weren’t Roberts showcases. Still, “Bohemiana”—and Bohemiana—come as close as possible to BCJO’s Monday nights at their superb peak—at least until Vol. 2.