Sherrie Maricle and Diva,
I Believe in You
(Arbors Records, 1999)

I had been looking forward to this album, since I'm a fan of contemporary big bands (few as they are), Maria Schneider's in particular, and the thought of another band, not only headed by but also made up of women, was quite appealing. There are some extraordinary women playing jazz these days, and here was a chance to hear an entire ensemble of them. Unfortunately, the concept was more promising than the follow-through.

I Believe in You is not a poor effort, just a lackluster and rather sloppy one. It doesn't bite, it doesn't sting. It just isn't sharp. The charts, solos and ensemble performances are on the level of an above average college big band who have been playing charts left over from the late '60s and early '70s. In other words, there's not a lot of innovation here. And there's some downright clumsiness as well.

In "I Feel Pretty," a transition consists of simply stopping and then starting again, a dead certain way to discourage swinging. "Happy Days Are Here Again" is a percussionless chart that strives for intensity and achieves only lethargy. "Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald" is not so much a medley as a series of musically unlinked songs that simply stop for a second until the next one starts, using no transitions; it's like a jump cut in film, but here the result is the sound of an awkward splice. And hearing the chart of "A Tisket A Tasket" should make us all urge arrangers to write vocals only when you have instrumentalists who can actually sing. The awkwardness continues right up to the end, when one last blaring chord comes out of nowhere to end "You and the Night and the Music."

But one can't solely blame the arrangements. When the band members get to solo, unencumbered by the page, the results are equally disappointing. Maybe my expectations had been set too high, since I had been listening for the past week to all ten CDs from the Jazz at the Philharmonic 1944-1949 set. Even though many of the solos on that set were simply showboating crowd pleasers recorded fifty years ago, they were nearly all more creative -- and more innovative -- than the solos played by Diva. "'Tis Autumn" has an endless trombone solo that only reminds us of how depressing an instrument the trombone can be without precise articulation. The flugelhorn solo in "I Feel Pretty" also has numerous missteps of articulation, and the baritone sax solo that follows is unformed and uncertain. Maricle herself has an extended drum solo on the last track, in which it seems that she actually loses the beat once or twice.

As for the ensemble sound, there are times when the intonation is faulty, but the biggest negative is the lack of articulation in the group. Many passages run a gamut from muddy to mushy: at times the phrases aren't together, there's a lack of sharpness in attack, and often they just don't swing. Cascading brass figures should dance down the steps as cleanly as the Nicholas Brothers, but in the first track, the horns just tumble together in a rush, head over heels. Passages that should pop and punch only sputter along. Even the dynamic range seems limited, and as a result, the tunes just end rather than come to any climax.

Diva has gotten its share of critical plaudits, but I suspect that it's due to the fact that there are so few big bands around these days that when one comes along, even if it's not top-rate, you feel churlish and mean-spirited criticizing it too harshly, not wanting to see another swing band die. All I'll say is, listen to Diva, and then listen to some other big bands of the present (Maria Schneider, Bob Mintzer) and the past (Ellington, Basie, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis), and believe what your ears tell you.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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