On Big Fat Grin (Innova, May 26), composer-guitarist Jamie Begian takes his writing for big band to a new level of refinement, imagination, and surprise. The follow-up to the Jamie Begian Big Band’s 2003 debut CD, Trance, the new release features exuberant readings of new compositions that display Begian’s growing maturity as a composer and arranger.

“On my first CD, Trance, I feel as if I was experimenting, figuring out my own unique voice,” Begian says. “On Big Fat Grin, I think I have found my voice. I understand what I do and I can concentrate on what I can express with in my own voice. I also think I understand my band better. For the first time, I was hearing specific soloists or picturing specific people playing certain parts.”

Begian takes his inspiration from many sources, but stamps each piece with his personal identity. “I usually write from the rhythm outward,” Begian says, “and let the rhythm suggest melodies and harmony, rather than writing a melody first. I like to surprise the listener, but I also strive for a unified feel to each piece.” For instance, “Funky Coffee” swaggers over the kind of carefree boogaloo beat that was popular in the 1960s. But the composition’s wandering theme is surprised at every turn by catchy riffs and colorful orchestrations that build in layers of increasing melodic and rhythmic excitement. “Patience” grew from the funky rhythmic bass line heard at the beginning. Begian then develops themes and counter lines that carom and crush against each other in a grooving but surprisingly complex long-form composition. Begian even plays sly games with the tempo of his lovely ballad, “Suddenly, Summer Falls.” Although the tune is a waltz, Jason Colby’s flugelhorn solo is in 4/4 time!

“Halay” reaches into Begian’s Armenian heritage. “A halay is an Armenian rhythmic figure, sort of like a montuno in Afro-Latin music,” Begian explains. “I was inspired by a recording by oudist George Mgrdichian and copied out one of his lines, then worked out my own variations of it.”

The four-part “Tayloration” suite is based on exercises written by trombonist-educator Dave Taylor. When Begian discovered that three of the four trombonists in the band had studied with Taylor, he wrote a suite featuring each member of his low-brass section. Each “Tayloration” is based on exercises written by Taylor and given a unique rhythmic treatment, from the bebop inflections of “Tayloration Four” to the Caribbean lilt of “Tayloration Two.”

The band handles the many demands of Begian’s charts with vitality and soloists clearly had fun with the music’s challenges. Alto saxophonist Marc McDonald, trumpeter Tom Goehring, and trombonist Deborah Weisz weave spontaneous counterpoint with verve and clarity on “Funky Coffee.” Bartok meets Ellington’s clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton in Dimitri Moderbacher solo on “Halay.” Each trombonist gets a personal showcase in the “Tayloration” suite, with Weisz displaying her virtuosity with a mute on “Tayloration Three” and Jeff Bush using multiphonics and an array of timbres on “Tayloration One.” The composer steps forward on “Suddenly, Summer Falls,” in a solo of oblique lyricism and arresting harmonies bathed in his rounded, glowing tone. He and fellow guitarist Bruce Arnold solo together and trade fours on the album’s swinging title track.

“Leading a big band was definitely not something I had in mind when I imagined a future career in music,” Begian says. He studied jazz guitar at the Hartt School of Music, where he also began composing for small groups in which he played. This interest in composing continued in his graduate studies in Jazz Performance at The Manhattan School, where he began composing for large ensemble in Dave LaLama’s arranging course. After finishing his Masters degree at MSM, he joined the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop in 1993. While in the workshop, Jamie’s unique sound and conception began to crystallize. When a Western Connecticut State University (where Begian currently serves as Coordinator of Jazz Studies) colleague asked him to write something for a student big band, he began work on his first real long-form composition “Trance.” “Trance was a real stretch for me, compositionally speaking. At the time I was very skeptical of that piece as a general concept – how can you have a big band piece with no real melody? On a whim, I brought this new piece into the BMI workshop, thinking that everyone would hate it and laugh me out the door,” Begian says. “To my surprise they not only liked it, but programmed it in their annual concert of 1996!” After accumulating a large enough book of music, Begian organized his first big band rehearsal in 1998 and the band made its public debut in February 1999. They released their first CD, Trance, in 2003.

As much as Begian loves the compositional options that a big band offers him, he still values the intimacy of a small group. “I think of the band as a small group with lots of horns, almost like a ‘deca-septet'” he says. “I want everyone to contribute and feel comfortable doing what they do best. The music is serious, but at the same time, it’s full of playfulness. I want the band to have fun good time along with the listeners.” The Jamie Begian Big Band is clearly having a great time on Big Fat Grin. Listeners will, too.

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