A Mean, Green Jazz Machine

Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big BandCelestial Green Monster (MutableMusic, 2009)

What a fun album.  Especially considering it was recorded in the face of tragedy, Celestial Green Monster revels in the joy of music making and the glory of big-band jazz. The horn arrangements are tight and jabbing — perfect, pinpoint execution — and the solos are free, exciting, and alive.

And when the album opens with the theme to The Amazing Spider-Man (yes, THAT theme: “Spiderman, spiderman / Does whatever a spider can”), it’s more than just a lark. This band draws heavily from Ho’s pop culture childhood, from the days when TV series like Mission: Impossible and Ironside used theme songs recorded by modern big bands. Lots of dramatic chords, lots of punchy swing.

Ho’s composing dominates the album. Two midsized tracks are apparently his earliest big-band compositions, from the mid-’70s, but the crowning glory is the 38-minute “The Struggle for a New World Suite.”  Its seven movements are given their own CD track numbers, so it can be consumed in bites — but really, the suite flies by like really good storytelling, replete with small-group episodes driven by electric piano and electric bass. You get funky moments, romantic swingy moments, sharply crazed soloing.

With the amount of free and improvised music I listen to, it’s easy to forget just how great a tightly knit big band can sound. Everybody is on course here, careening with the curves, making you want to jump up and dance. It’s a joy.

And when you find out the backstory …

As you can read in detail on Ho’s Web site and Myspace page, he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer a few years ago. The prognosis was grim, and Ho had to endure chemotherapy and multiple surgeries. But he won. He’s a cancer warrior who’s beaten the odds for now and has pledged to devote his remaining life to purpose: to his friends, his music, and his politics.

At the time of his diagnosis, though, it appeared Ho had little time left. So, he convened this big band to be his farewell gesture. After all, the economics of jazz today — let alone jazz with free-form sympathies — make it difficult to keep a big band organized and rehearsed. Facing a deadline on his life’s work, Ho saw the opening to do a go-for-broke project that would surround him with his closest friends.

The marvelous ending to the story is that it isn’t ending. The Green Monster Big Band has convened for a second recording, due out in 2011. And Ho has some exciting project in the works, including one inspired by Muhammad Ali. He’s gonna have a great year.

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