Open Borders: the Musicians

Kris Allen – alto saxophone

When I decided to form this 10-piece band, my first call went out to Kris. Aside from being a great musician and a levelheaded, good friend, Kris is incredibly “well connected” in Hartford the Northeast in general. He grew up in West Hartford and attended the Hartt School, where he studied under Jackie McLean. He has also spent a considerable amount of time in New York City. I knew he would have valuable perspective regarding what musicians to include. I only specified that they needed to be decent readers, strong improvisers, and hungry to play. Together, we came up with a roster, and it hasn’t changed considerably since those initial discussions in 2009. Equally surprising is that Kris hasn’t missed a gig since the group’s inception. In every other chair there have been numerous substitutes. He even played the music in Dallas, at a jazz educators conference, with a conglomerate band of jazz professors from around the country.

Wayne Escoffery – tenor saxophone

Picking a tenor player for this band was no easy task – not for a shortage of options, but because there are so many great players from which to choose. I ultimately left the decision to Kris, thinking, “Who knows saxophonists better than one of their own?” When Kris mentioned Wayne as an option, I must admit I knew his name, but wasn’t familiar with his playing. I knew he and Kris were students together at the University of Hartford, and Wayne played with Tom Harrell, and the Mingus Orchestra, among others. Since making the initial call, I have enjoyed getting to know Wayne both musically and personally. I like the fiery intensity his solos bring to the ensemble!

Lauren Sevian – bari saxophone

Kris said, “We need a REAL bari player, like Lauren Sevian.” He wasn’t kidding.

Lauren was completely unfazed when just before a concert, I presented her with a new, Giant Steps-filled set of chord changes for her solo on “Appointment In Ghana.” She’s a powerhouse player and I’m thrilled to have her as a regular contributor and solo voice in this band.

One quick glance at her website reveals how in demand she is as a player, performing and touring with some of the most recognized groups in contemporary jazz: the Christian McBride Big Band, the Grammy-award-winning Mingus Big Band, the Diva Jazz Orchestra, Luis Bonilla’s Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, the Birdland Big Band and the Count Basie Orchestra, to name a few. She is also a regular judge at the Essentially Ellington competition, sponsored by Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

There is no wondering why in recent years, Lauren has been listed repeatedly in the Downbeat Critics Poll as a “rising star” on baritone saxophone.

Jeffrey Holmes – lead trumpet

Jeff Holmes is a bit of an enigma; he could easily be misconstrued as intimidating because of his quiet and self-assured demeanor, mixed with his focused intensity. As a musician, he is the complete package. In addition to playing trumpet, he is also masterfully adept at the piano, drums, composing/arranging and large ensemble direction. Initially, I hired him at John Mastroianni’s suggestion. From the first notes he played, it was immediately apparent that he had an exhaustive, informed grasp of the lead trumpet’s role. His phrasing, articulations, note lengths and releases were all beyond compare. With Jeff playing lead, the band never sounded better.

Josh Evans – trumpet soloist

I first met Josh when he was a high school student playing in one of the Connecticut regional high school jazz bands I was hired to conduct. That was probably fifteen years ago. It has been interesting to witness his career unfold and to hear his playing develop. I have seen him move beyond trying to clone Freddie Hubbard and Blue Mitchell. He’s now well beyond regurgitating tried-and-true bop lines, and in my opinion, he has become one of the most expressive, daring improvisers on the jazz scene today.

Alex Gertner – French horn

Alex was still a graduate student at the University of Connecticut when we recorded this album. In the semester prior to the recording, I prepared this music with a student ensemble in which he played. He impressed me to the extent that I had no hesitation hiring him for the session. Having already rehearsed, practiced and performed the music, I knew he’d be better prepared than most professionals I could call; and he lived up to my expectations. Alex has since moved to New York City where he has begun freelancing, in addition to continuing his horn studies at Montclair State University.

Sara Jacovino – trombone

I first became aware of Sara in 2009, when she won the Sammy Nestico big band arranging award, which I had won several years prior. Seeing that she was from Connecticut, I reached out to her, made her acquaintance, and learned she had played trombone in the University of North Texas’ One O’Clock Jazz Lab Band. Following university, she moved to New York City, where she too participated in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop (though not during the same years as me), and was awarded the BMI Foundation’s Charlie Parker Composition Award/Manny Album Commission. These days she plays frequently in DIVA, the all-woman NYC jazz orchestra, the Birdland Big Band, led by Tommy Igoe, and with David Berger and the Sultans of Swing.

Sara has contributed a couple of original composition to this band’s library, which we have performed in concert, but did not record on the ensemble’s first album.

Ben Bilello – drum set, Henry Lugo – string bass

I tend to think of Ben and Henry as a unit. Even when I text them, it’s never individually; it’s as a group text. When we hang out between sets, there is always a lot of laughing. They’re goofy and light-hearted. I like that. They are both devoted, engaged fathers, and we tend to talk about the joys and challenges of parenting, even more than music. This all being said, they both take my music seriously and are always well-prepared. Besides playing with informed grace and style, I appreciate how this rhythm section can hold a tempo. It made my job much easier, and maximized options when editing the album.

Atla DeChamplain – vocals

When listening back to the recorded takes of East of the Sun, I kept thinking, “this melody would sound great if it was sung.” Then it dawned on me — the featured saxophonist was recorded in an isolation booth; I had the capability to overdub a singer in his place! If it worked – fantastic!!; if it failed, the original was just fine, as is.

Atla made an impression on me earlier in the year by driving out to Storrs with the intent of meeting me and “sitting in” at the weekly jam session I host. (I admire her for being a person that is intentional and takes the necessary steps to make things happen.) Like she did that night, she sang beautifully in the studio! I can’t think of another vocalist who could scat all the right notes over a sequence of diminished major seventh chords. Can you?! Now I’ll need to get serious about incorporating some vocal features into this ensemble’s repertoire.

Ricardo Monzon
– percussion (congas and shekere)

Ben Bilello suggested that “Dolphy Dance” could benefit from some congas being added. I honestly didn’t know who to ask, so I turned to Peter Kontrimas, the recording engineer. Peter is also a first-rate bassist who’s musical judgment I explicitly trust. He recommended Berklee professor, Ricardo Monzon as someone who had good taste and played along well to prerecorded tracks in an overdubbing studio situation. He didn’t disappoint.

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