Liner Notes by Joe Lang, Past President of the New Jersey Jazz Society, a frequent contributor to "Jersey jazz" and a member of the Jazz Journalist Association
In 1998, Octobop founder Geoff Roach stayed involved in jazz, like so many musicians who held full-time jobs outside the music business, by playing in rehearsal big bands. This enabled him to keep his chops up, but also served as a source of frustration since this activity afforded him little opportunity to satisfy his creative juices due to being buried in the reed section, with limited solo opportunities, playing charts that were beginning to feel tired. Inspired by his affection for the mid-sized bands led by the likes of Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich and Dave Pell, as well as by the pianoless groups led by Gerry Mulligan, Roach conceived the idea of forming a group that combined these dual influences. This group would require the players to exercise the discipline necessary to play in an ensemble and also allow them ample occasions for soloing. The result was Octobop. In addition to the benefits to the players in his group, Roach was also determined to have an ensemble that would attract an audience by playing arrangements that were accessible to listeners. He understood that too many jazz groups failed because they did not recognize the importance of communicating with their audience.
Very Early follows in the footsteps of Octobop's three critically acclaimed prior releases. Like each of the others, it demonstrates the growing maturity and eclecticism of Octobop. The band now has about 500 charts in its book, and has grown beyond its original influences, each of which came to the fore in the 1950's, to incorporate a more contemporary feeling to many of its selections. Leader Geoff Roach, who also plays baritone sax and alto flute, and Octobop guitarist Jack Conway have provided most of the arrangements for Very Early.
The album kicks off with a Marty Paich chart on the Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn standard "Love Me or Leave Me," featuring some nifty tenor sax work by Matt Kesner, with the other Octoboppers each given a taste of solo space, a perfect opener. Next up is Johnny Mandel's "Keester Parade," conceived by Conway as a playful, mid-tempo romp showcasing Jon Schermer's trombone and Randy Smith's muted trumpet. Roach's bouncy chart on Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" features him on alto flute and Kesner on tenor, with some nice picking from Conway. "A Ballad" is a gentle melody by Gerry Mulligan as arranged by Roach, with some choice solo space for Roach on bari and Schermer on trombone. The haunting title track, "Very Early, penned by Bill Evans and arranged by Conway, is a feature for Kesner and the vibes of Bill Hazzard. "Powder Puff," a Shorty Rogers tune arranged by Roach, is a jaunty number that captures the essence of the 1950's sound mentioned above, with primary solo honors going to Smith on trumpet and Roach on bari. Bob Mintzer's "Mosaic" is a piece with a more contemporary feeling. Conway did the arranging and shares the solo spotlight with Kesner. Conway's chart for the Mel Tormé and Robert Wells tale of woe, "Born to Be Blue" has a noirish feel, and gives solo space to several of the cats in the band highlighting Roach's baritone. Roach wrote his arrangement of Louis Alter and Eddie DeLange's "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" in 2000. It had lain fallow in the book for quite some time until Katrina hit Roach's hometown. It is included here as a reminder of the recent trials endured by New Orleans and its musicians. Charles Mingus had a talent for writing odd lines that somehow worked. One of his most successful and popular pieces was his tribute to Lester Young, "Good Bye Pork Pie Hat," part blues and part lament, and effectively charted for Octobop by Roach. Randy Smith composed and arranged "Saudades," a piece that has a bit of funk, a hint of Latin and even a touch of smooth jazz mixed together, with Smith, Conway and Hazzard each spotlighted. . To close the album, Octobop returns to the Marty Paich book for a nicely swinging take on "You're My Everything," a Harry Warren composition, with Kesner and Schermer stepping to the fore at solo time.
This disc reflects Octobop in 2006, a swinging, tasteful and talented group of musicians carrying on a tradition, and adding their own unique touches to a very special kind of sound.