The Phil Norman Tentet’s debut, On the Town,, recorded in 1996 and released last year, was such an unqualified success that living up to it posed an immense challenge. If the ensemble’s second endeavor, Yesterday’s Gardenia’s, doesn’t quite scale the Olympian heights reached by On the Town, it climbs so near that one has to applaud and admire the effort as well as the outcome. Since a tentet is not as loose–limbed or unstudied as most smaller detachments nor as brassy or robust as a full–fledged big band, much of its success — or lack thereof — rests on the potency of its arrangements, and it is here that Norman’s group excels with superlative charts by Bob Florence (six), Roger Neumann (five), Tom Kubis and Jackson Stock (one each). While thoroughly up to date, many of them call to mind the groundbreaking era of the ’50s and ’60s, which were a Golden Age for Jazz on the West Coast. Enhancing the image are two compositions by Gerry Mulligan (“Westwood Walk,” “A Ballad”), one apiece by Dave Brubeck (“The Duke”), Henry Mancini (“Dreamsville”) and Bill Russo (“Sweets”), as well as Richard Carpenter’s early Jazz classic, “Walkin’.” Florence wrote the bustling “Nilestones” as a tribute to Jazz deejay Chuck Niles, trumpeter Carl Saunders composed “Prudence” (which is not, as one might anticipate from its name, a ballad), Michel Legrand penned the ballad “I Will Say Goodbye,” and Neumann arranged the title selection, whose melody Norman heard and fell in love with many years ago on an album by baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff. The disc opens with a snappy reading of Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar” and closes with two well–known works, Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” and Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born” (part of a medley with Johnny Mandel’s “Just a Child”). There have been a few personnel changes since On the Town,, but the newcomers — trombonist Martin for Bob McChesney, alto Higgins for Charles Oreña, baritone Neumann for Bob Efford, trumpeter Graham sitting in for Saunders on half a dozen tracks — don’t reduce the session’s impressive stature even one iota. Everyone including the leader has a chance to blow, and everyone makes the most of the opportunity. Agreeable as the solos are, however, it is the consistently colorful ensemble that walks away with topmost honors, which is as it should be. An admirable second time at bat for Norman’s all–star tentet.
Track listing: Sugar; Westwood Walk; The Duke; Prudence; I Will Say Goodbye; Walkin’; Nilestones; Dreamsville; Yesterday’s Gardenias; A Ballad; Sweets; Night Train; A Child Is Born; Just a Child (65:47).