Musicians are in a unique position to work through their problems by playing, performing, collaborating, and ultimately, recording. The ultimate creative outlet, many turn to the recording process to chronicle their journey through ups, downs, struggles, and triumphs. Dallas-born trumpeter Kenny Lavender put all of his own life’s stories into a two-CD set which made up his Conscious Journey. “Although not in chronological order, these tunes represent different stages in my personal growth, from falling in love with my wife to dealing with addiction and a lot in between.”
Released last Thursday, Conscious Journey takes Lavender and his 17-piece big band through a nice array of covers and originals that signify certain pivotal points in the artist’s life. Lavender and the company he keeps come well-equipped to handle big band style, dense interpretation, and lively-to-moody snapshots of those significant moments.
“Conscious Journey is a story of my life, which illustrates my journey through love, tragedy, loss, and achievement,” Lavender explained. “Each song represents a part of me and my voyage with music, as well as relationships with others and myself. I composed or arranged, and conducted every song on this album, as well as wrote lyrics to three of my originals. The musicians are the best in the world, and my thorough featured writing truly showcases such magnificent talent, coming from New York City’s finest players, as well as myself displaying my diversity through my passion in swinging jazz, soaring trumpet, and crooning vocals.”
Lavender started out on the trumpet at 13. He backed Aretha Franklin, Clark Terry, Jon Faddis, Dave Brubeck, Slide Hampton, the Manhattan Transfer, and Nicholas Payton, among others, while attending Indiana University and the University of North Florida. He continued as a sideman for Frankie Valli, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Johnny Mathis, Josh Groban, Peter Cetera (Chicago), and several big bands. He’s also deepened his orchestral experience as a Broadway pit musician. His latest Broadway gig, Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway.
Lavender’s own big band includes in-demand sidemen from New York City: trumpeter/flugelhornists John Chudoba (Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Jack Sheldon big bands) and Bob Milikan (Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett), trombonist Joe Barati (Harry Connick Jr., Arturo Sandoval), and bassist Paul Palombi (Grammy-winning Monday Night Live At The Village Vanguard).
Kenny Lavender’s Conscious Journey is — for the most part — a lively, big band experience. He tells of overcoming addiction with his wife’s inspiration in “Flow Through Me,” one of the few vocal tracks — and his weakest point — and undergoing growing pains of the first 10 years of marriage in the stark, somber, and haunting, “Beauty In A Kiss.” “Happiness” dips deeply into a somber, moody number with Lavender holding forth quite strongly as a leading man on his trumpet and flugelhorn.
Otherwise, Lavender’s world jumps, pops, and rips through dramatically heightened big band sounds: screaming horns, strutting piano, rippling percussive bounces. Everything sounds bigger, bolder, and somewhat retro. “Caravan” might as well be a timeless effort from back in the days of Louis Armstrong, with a neat little Latin horn wrap-up and Lavender’s rapturous solo.
Broadway plays a huge role. “I Could Write A Book,” featuring Lavender’s mediocre vocals — the poor man’s Harry Connick Jr. (a huge influence) — squeezes out every last golden ounce of those big band days past, complete with a Louis Armstrong-worthy horn solo weaving in and over the proceedings. “The number concludes with my favorite thing about Pops — his ability to soar, never ending, over the ripping band.”
Lavender throws in a little New Orleans kick “Down In Nola,” his nod to the Crescent City, near where his father-in-law’s from. Clarinetist Kurt Bacher (aka, Pete Fountain) brushes by shades of Benny Goodman before the rest of the big band swings in with the familiar New Orleans second line beats of pianist Rick Germanson, drummer Andy Watson, and nice bendy trumpet action by Lavender at around the 6:15 mark.
“9th Ave Swag” best represents Lavender’s outlook: upbeat, confident, collectively in sync with the rhythm of the city. He got the idea for the song while strolling New York City during a rough patch. Some music he was listening to came on randomly, with one capturing his attention. It “rejuvenated my soul and spirit. I wanted to express that feeling through the groove of this tune. The writing really features the band in some difficult, flawless, funky playing.” Flawlessly, the horns stack on top of one another in time to the beat, as tenor Jason Rigby, pianist Germanson, and Lavender do their thing, jumping in at just the right time, pouring their heart and soul into every perfectly rendered, purposefully janky note.
Kenny Lavender wrote, arranged, and produced the 11 tracks in this two-CD set with exceptional attention to detail. Each track, from first note to last, oozed Lavender’s own big and brash personality in his most comfortable setting, big band jazz with a Broadway splash. Coordinating 17 musicians in some dense, complicated, layered numbers couldn’t have been easy. Lavender pulled it off with a justifiable swagger, while leaving the listener with a grasp of who he is as an artist and a person, and an appreciation for his Conscious Journey.