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Charlie Apicella and Iron City deliver ‘Big Boss’ grooves

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Charlie Apicella and Iron City “Big Boss” album [July 8, 2014, Zoho]

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Apicella is a no-nonsense player of unquestioned chops and whose soul drips from each note... This is ‘organic’ music, and Apicella is an exciting young player. —John Heidt, Vintage Guitar

On Charlie Apicella & Iron City’s third album, the band tries to lift the traditional organic organ sound by punching up the lyrical without going too far off the deep bend. Apicella is a New York City jazz guitarist who does things straight-ahead, finding deep pockets of swing and groove.

In their first ZOHO, July 8, 2014 release, “Big Boss,” Apicella and Iron City use every sound at their disposal to produce an organic, swinging fix on jazz blues classics, with a few originals. Iron City is comprised of Apicella’s longtime saxophonist Stephen Riley, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, and conga master Mayra Casales, with drummer Alan Korzin, violinist Amy Bateman, and organist Dan Kostelnik.

You hear funky blasts of trumpet and sax, a little percussive bounce, lots of Apicella’s sturdy guitar work. But you really get a huge dose of Kostelnik on the organ. In many ways, this is an album devoted to what the organist can bring to the table with the window dressing of a horn section.

Half of the eight songs were written by Apicella, the other half come from his favorites, ballads, up-tempos, an unusual choice in cover from Motown. The entire album was produced and arranged by Apicella and Korzin with their musical influences in mind: Wes Montgomery, Lester Young, Count Basie’s big band, Don Patterson/Billy James, “Big” John Patton/Ben Dixon, Larry Young/Elvin Jones.

“In The Grass” is Charlie Apicella’s perfect 6/8 rendition for every featured instrument polyrhythmically, a love song between the horns and the organ, with his guitar filling up the gathering spaces, providing witty conversation.

Within seconds of the big band intro, you realize the band’s heading into Motown territory with Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “I Hear A Symphony.” It’s a song rarely heard without vocals telling a sweeping story of courtship and romance. The band of instrumentalists try to capture that same sweeping excitement, minus the girlish giddiness. Apicella approached the instrumental arrangement with the late jazz-soul composer/organist/saxophonist Charles Earland in mind. In fact, the organ shines in this remake. When it’s missing, much of the melodic play goes too, putting the cover in danger of elevator music.

A crowd favorite will definitely be “Amalfi,” another Apicella original. The guitarist really concentrates on uplifting a beautiful thread of melody to its finest points, through the interpretative works of a fair, feminizing violin, barely a thud from the organ for most of the run — which, let’s be real, can feel oppressively ubiquitous if not careful, and a two-horn magnet. Apicella worked with two horns in the composition for the first time but said he benefitted from two magnificently astute horn players, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley. Apicella wisely let violinist Bateman do the melodic honors, transforming what would’ve been a decent jazz-blues number into the realm of the classical ballet. But the featured artist isn’t gone, as his pronounced solo reverberates and underscores Bateman’s wonderful layers. When the organist does surface, he makes every moment count, doing more than hitting the keys. He practically makes the keys burst into applause at every dramatic turn. Blending his organ with Bateman’s violin softens the hard edges, keeping this ballad intact.

Grant Green’s “Sunday Mornin’” standard goes gospel and blues. But by the end of this album, it’s simply too much blues organ for one sitting on a meager, derivative melody. However, organist Kostelnik burns in his solos, raising his revelatory time.

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