In 2019, Willey recorded and released two albums: Down & Dirty and Conspiracy. Now he releases Puttin’ On the Ritz, a collection of 12 fun Jazz standards and originals in which Willey plays almost all of the horn parts. He is joined by Paul Mutzabaugh, and Jeremy Kahn on piano, Mike Pinto on guitar, Larry Kohut on bass, George Fludas and Neal Wehman on drums, Jim Massoth on tenor sax, and a host of string musicians, horn players, and percussionists.
The album opens with Poor Butterfly by Raymond Hubbell which was inspired by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. There are great solos from Willey on bass trumpet and EVI and a fine piano solo by Mutzabaugh. From the start, the arrangement and intonations of the horns are captivating. Mutzabaugh’s piano is equally wonderful and the strings are lush and fulfilling.
The swinging horns and rhythm section open If I Should Lose You by Ralph Rainger from the 1936 movie Rose of the Ranger. Willey leads on trumpet and is magnificent while Mutzabaugh returns for the piano solo. Pay attention to George Fludas’ drum work—understated but very effective. I’ll Be Seeing You is the 1938 standard by Sammy Fain. It could very well be the most emotional piece from the Jazz genre. Willey doesn’t ease up on the emotion and renders a slightly more up-tempo version but the warmth of the trumpet and exactness of the EVI make this a memorable tune. Again, the horn arrangement and performance is breathtaking.
The melancholy is unabated in My Melancholy Baby by Ernie Burnett. The song was written in 1912 and first sung by William Frawley. Yes, that William Frawley—Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. He reprised the song in 1958 on the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Do yourself a favor and listen to Frawley’s singing of the tune on YouTube. The rich and dynamic trumpet from Willey in his version is almost vocal in its tone and phrasing. Willey’s rendition is superb.
Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ On the Ritz was thwarted for an entire generation because of Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder’s comedic version of the song in the 1974 movie Young Frankenstein then followed by the atrocious 1982 Pop version by Taco. God bless Rich Willey for rescuing the great tune. Willey and Mutzabaugh kick of the tune and Willey throws in with a smoking trumpet solo. Listen for Mike Pinto’s subdued guitar touches. Mutzabaugh adds his fine piano work in the excellent and fun romp. I love this song once more.
Frank Zappa’s Uncle Remus is probably the most unexpected song on the whole album. I love Frank Zappa and this song, in particular, but this was a big surprise. What is even more astonishing is the brilliant delivery of the song. Mutzabaugh’s Hammond B3 work is a beautiful tribute to George Duke, the co-author and keyboardist of the song. Mike Pinto’s guitar is wonderful. Willey adds the trumpet and bass trumpet and it is some kind of rewarding, indeed.
Sweet Lorraine and Hard-Hearted Hannah are standards that are given terrific treatments from Willey’s trumpet and bass trumpet. Willey evens provides the vocals on Hard-Hearted Hannah. And he is good! The guy can truly do it all.
If you needed more proof of that, Willey also composed three magnificent songs for the album. Song for Janet was written as a birthday present for his “sweet and incredible wife.” Make sure to read the liner notes and read Willey’s account of that song. The tune is a lovely work with extraordinary trumpet, bass trumpet, and piano passages. Again—I know, I’ve said it before—the production and mixing of the horn parts are fabulous.
But for the Grace of God appeared on Rich Willey’s Boptism Big Band: Down & Dirty. Zeke Listenbee is the featured vocalist on the song and he adds a beautiful tone and texture. Willey’s is on the bass trumpet again and Mutzabaugh plays the Fender Rhodes. It is a moving song of gratitude and praise and is worth the price of admission.
Holy Trinity has two versions of the piece, a radio edit and a full version that is four-and-a-half minutes longer. The full version concludes the album with contributions from David Mann on soprano sax, Andrew Synowiec on guitar, John Sawana on EVI, and Willey on bass trumpet. This may have been my favorite song on the whole album. It is touching and uplifting in much the same mood as John Coltrane’s The Father and the Son, and the Holy Ghost but in a much more lyrical and accessible way. It is warm and comforting, encouraging and inspiring, and above all, enlightening. It is the stuff of contemplation.
Rich Willey’s Puttin’ on the Ritz is a wonderwork of performance, composition, and arranging. From standards to ballads to Zappa, Rich Willey takes ownership of everything and bends it to his formidable will and incredible talent. This is an album with which you will fall in love. And so you should.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl