There is nothing cartoonish about Cartoon Bebop,
the newest release by composer/arranger Dan Bonsanti
's band, The 14 Jazz Orchestra
. The album is a swinging, contemporary take on jazz compositions by modern masters. This is the third release by the group, following The Future Ain't What It Used to Be
(2018) and Nothing Hard Is Ever Easy
The 14 Jazz Orchestra is a 13-piece jazz ensemble under the direction of arranger and producer Dan Bonsanti. The group comprises 13 outstanding jazz musicians who have recorded and performed with many of the top names in jazz and pop. The basic instrumentation of the group consists of four saxophones/woodwinds, two trombones, three trumpets, guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums.
Bonsanti is a saxophonist who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Miami. After graduating, he began his professional career performing with big bands like the Stan Kenton
Orchestra, Jaco Pastorius
’ Word of Mouth Orchestra, and Doc Severinsen
, as well as with artists such as Nat Adderley
, Michael Brecker
, Randy Brecker
, Jimmy Cobb
, Bob James
, and Dave Liebman
, to name just a few. He also recorded with Barbra Streisand, The Bee Gees, Dionne Warwick, and Dolly Parton, among others. Bonsanti, who began arranging in 1979, wrote charts for The Jaco Pastorius Big Band, a tribute band to Jaco’s legacy, and the Atlantean Driftwood Band.
He also began teaching in 1975, and taught at Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill & Greensboro, and, most notably, at the University of Miami, where he was Associate Director of Jazz Studies from 1976 until 1990.
Bonsanti formed a rehearsal band in 2013 as a creative outlet for South Florida Jazz and studio musicians. The band initially played existing arrangements from Bonsanti's personal library. After a while, they began presenting concerts around South Florida. Their performances were very well-received, and the band would soon become The 14 Jazz Orchestra.
It took Bonsanti over a year to choose the tunes for Cartoon Bebop. He says, “I spent countless hours listening to music across a wide spectrum of styles to choose the music for this project. I wanted tunes that I felt would stand up to repeated listening. In fact, I listened to each song on this album by different artists at least 100 times before I felt it had enough color, passion, and energy to engage the listener, while providing the setting for our soloists and rhythm section players to showcase their talents.”
Although Bonsanti has written extensively for large ensembles, he prefers smaller configurations for his own recordings. “My goal is to ‘not’ sound like a big band. I like the lightness and colors you can get with less instrumentation,” says Bonsanti. “I prefer to get orchestral flavors by mixing instruments from different sections of the band. It allows for a softer, more fluid, and less strident sound.”
Because of the pandemic, recording Cartoon Bebop presented its own unique challenges. Bonsanti explains, “One of the biggest challenges was finding compatible players with home studios. I've always preferred selecting familiar, versatile players, whose musical skills and concepts were as like-minded as possible. That’s why, with few exceptions, almost all the players on our recording projects have come through many generations of the University of Miami Studio Music and Jazz programs. Unfortunately, several of our current band members were not set up to record at home, so I had to search for replacements for some instruments.”
Bonsanti engaged musicians from around the country to participate, including trumpet players Bretty Murphey in Wisconsin and Jason Carder in Arizona, as well as trombonist Dana Teboe in Maine. Besides being graduates of the UofM jazz programs, Bonsanti had worked with each of the players on many gigs in South Florida. Bonsanti also engaged drummer Peter Erskine
in Los Angeles, and woodwinds players Ed Maina
in Tennessee and Tom Tinko in New Jersey. Guitarists Lindsey Blair
and Randy Bernsen
, drummers Lee Levin
, Jack Ciano
and Mike Harvey
, woodwinds players Ed Calle
, Peter Brewer
, and Neal Bonsanti
(Bonsanti’s brother), bassists Nicky Orta
, Tim Smith
, Jamie Ousley
, and Matt Bonelli
, pianists Mike Levine
and Kemuel Roig
, and percussionist Richard Bravo
all recorded from different locations around Florida. Bonsanti credits his engineer, Mike Levine, for the truly superb job he did in stitching together all the different parts into a seamless whole.
The compositions on the album represent a variety of styles, including the title tune “Cartoon Bebop,” which along with “A Day Tripper’s Blues Buffet,” were composed by Bonsanti. He was inspired to write “Cartoon Bebop” after hearing a TV commercial using cartoon characters, Rocky and Bullwinkle, his childhood favorites. Bonsanti cleverly hints at the show’s theme by using piccolo and tuba while adding Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk motifs. Bonsanti also intended to include a Beatles tune and blues number. He combined the two ideas in “A Day Tripper’s Blues Buffet.”
Bonsanti has included Chick Corea pieces on all of his recordings because he feels Chick's music translates very smoothly to large ensembles. Cartoon Bebop" contains two of Corea’s compositions, Got A Match?" and Duende." Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock have always been among his favorite composers, and Bonsanti includes a number from each. On Shorter’s ballad, Infant Eyes,” Bonsanti captures the composition’s essence with a slow 6/4 feel and uses a variety of woodwind colors to create a new setting, while Hancock's Driftin'" provides a great hard-swinging vehicle for the band. On Stanley Clarke's Dayride," Bonsanti used Corea’s approach to solo fills and adds an exciting shout chorus near the end of the recording. The tune features great solos by Ed Calle, Lindsey Blair, and Mike Levine. Cartoon Bebop
is a swinging mélange of straight-ahead, pop, and fusion compositions united by Dan Bonsanti’s inventive arrangements. The album features mostly players originally from South Florida with just a few notable exceptions, and the musicianship is simply stellar.Cartoon Bebop
will be available online everywhere on January 15, 2021.