You Better Watch Out!

October 1, 2017 | Comments Off on You Better Watch Out!

Coming Christmas 2017….

Commentary on You Better Watch Out!

by Wayne Nicolosi


To some, covers of traditional tunes may not strike an avant-garde note – but put down the figgy pudding – this is not your grandma’s Christmas album! Mike Treni’s familiar gems are serious music, serious fun, and sparkle with the pure joyous invention of rhythmic complexity, audacious instrumentation and daring modern harmonies.

Sadly, progressive big band music is often far from the public eye and history frequently overlooks the large ensembles of artists like Charles Mingus, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Clarke/Boland, Don Ellis, or Toshiko Akiyoshi. Treni’s compositions and arrangements have bravely flown the flag of large-ensemble jazz for more than 40 years. With his reverence for the Great American Songbook, liturgical music, and the gods of large and small ensemble jazz, Treni marries the progressive and the familiar. Certain to be admired by jazz aficionados, this collection deserves an audience among the general public as well.

Each tune is a mash-up of well-loved melodic hooks, indelible harmonic motifs, and evocative tonalities—Treni even makes literary associations from the unsung lyrics of his instrumental renditions. His multilayered creations cascade over the listener darting playfully around the edges of our collective memory. There is a dizzying quantum mechanics to Treni’s work: just as we begin to perceive it clearly, another innovation enters and demands attention. Unable to catch our breath or hold our footing we are compelled to listen again and again, each time with an ear for something new.

At the heart of Treni’s band-within-a-band style are pulsing trios and quartets that swell to full big band size and back. By doubling his sax men on soprano, flute, bass clarinet, clarinet, and even recorder Treni extends the traditional big band palette. Pairings with muted and full-voice trumpets, flugelhorn, alto flugelhorn, trombones, bass trombone and even overdrive guitar afford an infinite range of tonal colors. Each augmentation of the rhythm section premiers new solo or ensemble voices that glide in and out of, or rhythmically punctuate the melodic line. Even in down-tempo tunes, melody, sectional harmonies and counterpoint veer from section to section so quickly that it can be hard to pinpoint who is playing what. Perhaps this record should be called You Better Listen Up!

Use it as background to your holiday party if you must, but don’t be surprised if toes start tapping and the occasional guest grows quiet and stares off in a music-induced trance.

The Music

You Better Watch Out!

Right out of the gate Treni’s version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town kicks Santa‘s reindeer into high gear on a wild polyphonic ride that releases a pack of hardswinging soloists. Tenors Rob Middleton and Frank Elmo, and altos Craig Yaremko and Anton Denner exchange call and response phrases infused with the flavor of pre-bop players like Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges. Trumpeters Chris Persad, Ben Hankle, Vinnie Cutro, and Kevin Bryan follow with rousing four and eight-bar inventions. Full band riffs punctuate Jim Ridl‘s piano solo until trumpeter Kevin Bryan blows a few bars and is answered by Craig Yaremko‘s alto.

For a finale the sax section plays a humorous Here Comes Santa Claus coda followed by a 3-finger piano solo and a full-band final stinger—the perfect punchline and homage to Count Basie, and a wink to those who somehow missed the earlier references.


Let it Snow/ I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm

Without a single uttered word, Treni cleverly uses the well-known lyrics of these two songs to make an association that underscores his vision of their conjoining melodies. Barely a chorus or verse of either song is ever completed without phrases from the otherso good luck trying to sing along.

The snow is snowing and the horns are blowing beginning with a full-band blizzarda 4-bar hook from I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm. Saxes segue into a verse of Let It Snow, before the bones pick up the melody.

Standards are often like a carousel, after the first go-round you know what’s comingbut with Treni’s spin, each turn brings something new. Every four or eight bars sections alternate playing lead, backup or counterpoint until a Scott Reeve bone solo evokes the mellow ballad style of Glenn Miller. The band follows suit, gradually building then dropping to a sotto voce bone sectional and final sax section suspension.


The Carol of the Bells

Trumpets with a descending bell motif ring in the sounds of a traditional brass choir playing Mykola Leontovych’s classic carol. Then, out of nowhere, Bryan Smith‘s searing controlledfeedback guitar smokes the melody, launching the band into a rollercoaster of lunging, soaring surprises—the Trans-Siberian Orchestra meets the sophistication of virtuoso jazz composition.

Surprises include Klezmer-style clarinet harmonies against contrapuntal guitar and a brassy swing punctuated by a descending 4-note motif that smacks of the iconic James Bond theme.

Jim Ridl‘s show stopping piano solo explores shifting rhythms, syncopations and unexpected harmonic inversions that delve even deeper into the idioms of Treni’s polyphonic compositional style. Behind Ridl the band builds with more Bond-like sectional flourishes, then breaks to a reprise of the brass choir. After another sonic summit, a breathtaking plummet to quartet size is propelled by the harmonic and rhythmic interplay of Cutro and Ridel (and some of Cutro’s most brilliantly conceived and executed recorded solo work). Combining impeccable jazz chops with the raw, bluesy, aggression of Jeff Beck, Smith’s phlangey solo unleashes a tsunami of sound that pushes the band higher and higher through faster and faster cycles of variations on Treni’s many stated themes.

This booming epic action thriller ends with a reprise of Smith’s guitar melody, a swelling crescendo, a massive sting and a drop to a huge Peter Gunn-style minor suspension. Whew!

The popularity of bands like Roberto Juan Rodriguez and his Cuban Jewish All Stars is testament to the rediscovery of connections between KlezmerJewish improvisation-based dance musicand Cuban rumba (or party) music. Treni joins the party with this spirited holiday offering.

To start the top whirling, a trio of clarinets entwines slow Klezmer-style harmonies. Accelerating to double-time the ensemble grows to include a Latin bass pattern, conga by world-class percussionist Frank Valdés, and a piano vamp in archetypal Latin ostinato style (literally obstinate repetition). Saxes dive in with the childhood Chanukah favorite, Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel. When the top is in full spin, quotes from the Mexican folksong La Cucaracha and rock mambo anthem Tequila fuse with the Yiddish folk song. Treni evokes the Latin big band sounds of the 40’s and 50’s with wide shake vibrato from the trumpets, trombone slide vibrato. and trombone glissandos.

In a brilliant departure from typical Latin form, piano soloist Jim Ridl uses blue notes to introduce a solo that incorporates Latin-style block chords, glissandos and embellishments. Craig Yaremko‘s extended flute solo evokes modern Latin flute virtuosos like Nestor Torres and the late Dave Valentin. A fiery chorus by trumpeter Kevin Bryan leads to a Cucaracha/Tequila/Dreidel mash-up that ends with a fullensemble Buddy Rich-style drum solo, then a surprise: the quiet clarinet figure in reverse. The top slows down and finally falls with a comic one-note stinger. Happy Chanukah Señiores y Señoritas!


I Wonder as I Wander

A plaintive flugelhorn conjures this austere Appalachian folk hymn. Eerie clarinets joined by trombones, bass and brushes set out on a pensive walk in the woods reminiscent of Nat King Cole’s haunting Nature Boy. Like a spider working in the morning dew, Treni spins a glistening web—ominous but more and more beautiful at each added complexity. A simple minor waltz forms the base for Frank Elmo’s lilting soprano saxophone melody.

Scattered about the waking forest, echoes of theme and variation prefigure capriciously placed entrances and shifting instrumentation. Several times our soprano wanderer slows down, pauses and stops for a brief respite. After one stop a short chord solo from the piano introduces Elmo’s heartbreaking soprano improvisation. Background figures that evoke flowing water build in intensity leading the soloist back to the melody.

Eventually the band repeats soothing major chords and our delightfully mysterious journey ends on a safe and positive note. Or does it? In a waltz one would expect three repetitions of the final strain, but there are only two. Where is the lost chord? I wonder.


Jingle Bells

From the saxophone intro, the band breaks to a trio. Jim Ridl‘s expansive piano solo features unusual block-chord voicings, then quotes Christmas Time is Here. With a nod to the inversions, attack and swing of Vince Guaraldi‘s original, Ridl intermingles his own progressive but bluesy melodic style. When the band finally enters the sax section treats us to an oddly relaxing down-tempo version of Jingle Bells. The smoothly gliding sleigh ride includes high and low brass, and toy mute trumpets playing a gentle staccato melody. Soft bones and legato saxes make delicate entrances in delightful, unexpected places. A momentary echo by the trio glides band and sleigh to a gentle stop.

This cozy rendition harkens back to the days of Nelson Riddle, when vocalists stood astride the boundary between popular music and jazz.

Treni intros with muted trumpets and mellow saxes that transition to a bridge picked up by solo bone, then solo trumpet. The band builds to an easy stop and breaks to a quartet. Jim Fryer‘s bone improvisation sets the stage for Jim Ridl‘s lightly swinging solo piano. When the band builds again a chorus of trumpets blares with wide shake vibrato. Saxes, bones and trumpet take turns swapping inventive takes on the melody. Treni ends with descending saxes, a single piano note, and a soothing diapason from bones and muted trumpets.


The Christmas Song

With all the jazz versions of this song it’s great to find one that adds more than just swing.

A 4-bar intro raises the band to a summit and slows to a quiet stop as a crooning trombone enters with a sleepy ballad. Trumpets, clarinets and a variety of saxes imperceptibly ebb in and out of the background. Swelling, then falling they echo the lush tonal flow of the melody. The band gushes into a driving up-tempo rendition until a screeching trumpet sectional plummets them back to the trombone-led quartet. Treni ‘s solo bone glides through shifts in time, instrumentation and timbre. A reprise by woodwinds, bone, then full band leads back to Treni’s solo melody. The band enters and all modulate up to a lovely final vibrato suspension.


Hark the Herald Angels Swing

In the tradition of Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige and the Gil Evans/Miles Davis Sketches of Spain, Treni guides the listener through a rarely used form, the jazz narrative.

The curtain rises on a band of street musicians. A recorder intones the 18th century Herald Angels melody, accompanied by sounds that mimic a lute and an Irish hand drum. In mid-note brassy street noise overpowers the trio with a full drum kit and a bass line straight out of Harry Warren’s 42nd Street. Dispatched to swinging Herald Square, trombones, saxes and accented trumpets evoke the beat of dancing feet. The raucous band suddenly remembers their manners and breaks to let the forgotten recorder play a joyous strain from Angels We Have Heard on High. After some bone-based melody the band makes nice again and steps aside for the recorder player to complete his phrase. A brass choir comes in swinging followed by the saxes who—inspired by the lowly recorder player—break into their own praise of the Angels.

A Rob Middleton, Frank Elmo tenor exchange enters, dizzy with bebop quotes. Underneath, the band picks up Salt Peanuts, then quotes from Bernie’s Tune, In the Mood, and a string of other jazz anthems. Melodies race to mingle with the old-time throng—and sometimes the soloists even anticipate tunes before the band finds them in the score. A rubber cigar to anyone who catches them all.

Wayne Dunston’s drum solo steers the bassdriven theme. Remembering our plucky flautist the band brakes for two quick cadenzas, then stomps on the gas. They hush for one last time for a sweetly comic “partridge in a pear tree” twitter from the recorder. With a final blast the band exits and leaves the streets to the busking trio.



Craig Yaremko – alto saxophone (lead), flute
Anton Denner – alto, soprano saxophones
Frank Elmo – tenor, soprano saxophones, clarinet
Rob Middleton – tenor saxophone, clarinet, recorder
Roy Nicolosi – alto, soprano, tenor, baritone saxophones,
clarinet, bass clarinet, flute
Michael Treni – trombone (lead 1, 6, 7, 8 & 9)
Scott Reeves – trombone, alto flugelhorn (lead 2, 4, & 5)
Jim Frye – trombone (lead 3)
Keith Marson – bass trombone
Kevin Bryan – trumpet (lead 2 – 9)
Chris Persad – trumpet
Vinne Cutro – trumpet (lead 1)
Ben Hankle – trumpet
Pete Hyde – trumpet
Bryan Smith – guitar
Jim Ridl – piano
Chris Berger – bass
Wayne Dunton – drums
Frank Valdés – percussion

Produced by Michael Treni and Roy S. Nicolosi
Arrangements by Michael Treni
Recorded April 29 & 30, 2017
Nicolosi Studios, Montvale, NJ
Recording and mixing engineer:
Bryan Smith
Mastered by:
Nathan James, The Vault Studios
Photos by Chris Drukker
CD Design by Ashley Treni


Recording © 2017 by Michael Treni