As for Bonnie Bowden, you should already be well-acquainted with her great body of work from the many recordings with Sergio Mendes and under her own name.
Tim Miller is the band leader and also plays baritone sax and bass clarinet. The arrangements by Myles Collins, John Clayton, Mark Taylor, Jerry Nowak, Sammy Nestico, and Patrick Williams are tight and powerful. In a big band setting, of course, it is the arrangement that is in control, unlike smaller groups where the individual artists have freer reign.
Patrick Williams also composed and arranged the title song, Livin’ the Canary Life, which is especially poignant with the recent passing of the brilliant and generous man. Bonnie said, “He wrote Livin’ the Canary Life and Cry Me a River charts for me. I was so very grateful. I cried when he gave them to me... Gratis. Very lovely and kind man.”
It makes an exciting album even more meaningful.
The album opens with Frank Wildhorn’s Till You Come Back to Me. Bonnie Bowden’s enunciation moves from staccato to legato in the coolest transitions. RW Enoch’s tenor sax solo is splendid and the rhythm section of Dustin Morgan (bass) and John Spooner and Jack Cook (drums both) is smoking.
Then it all bursts into flame with Swing, Swing, Swing. The title is a perfect description of what the John Williams composition does. It is an instrumental that is a fantastic bridge between the opening track and what follows. The mix is so well done that the whole reed and horn sections can almost be picked out individually. Hats off to Jim Baldree for his producing/engineering/mixing/mastering expertise. And the guy plays a great bass trombone, too.
Cry Me a River is just beautiful. Patrick Williams arranged the Arthur Hamilton classic to stunning effect. Bonnie has a way of telegraphing the next note that is extraordinary. The bluesy piece is done to perfection by Bonnie and the band, alike. I mean, perfection.
Then Bonnie redirects her delivery in I’m Gonna Live Til I Die. She even pronounces certain letters differently in such an appropriate way for the song’s playful mood. Nothing is straight-up with this group of artists. They meet the challenge of each piece on its own terms and they just own it.
The Angel City Big Band takes up Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are next. The instrumental treatment presents great solos by Paul Pate on alto sax and Mike Meunch on trumpet. Mark Taylor arranged the piece, taking one of the best-loved standards and making it fresh with added swing.
Livin’ the Canary Life is the centerpiece both in track placement and holding the album’s title honors. The song mentions the great female vocalists, detailing the life of the singer. But one can’t help but wonder if Arthur Hamilton’s lyrics also carry a bit of the idea that these singers were also voices of warning, like the canary in the mine.
I keep swingin’ through all the smoke
I keep singin’ though I end up broke
Enoch gets another tenor sax solo and the band punches in the accents as the rhythm section nails it over and over again.
One surprise is the reworking of the Billy Preston/Bruce Fisher song made famous by Joe Cocker, You Are So Beautiful. Bonnie’s singing is every bit as emotional as the original but seated splendidly within the context of this amazing big band. With Cocker’s version, you enjoyed the raw emotion of the song. With Bonnie and the Angel City Big Band, you enjoy everything from Rick Parent’s piano to the whole band’s ebb and flow to Bonnie’s warm vocals.
Gold Coffee is like a film noir soundtrack. It is a Sammy Nestico original instrumental. The song evokes images of Sam Spade peering corners on a rainy L.A. night. Another smoky RW Enoch tenor sax solo accentuates the coolness of the piece. Enoch hits his target time after time.
The band takes another leap in Mark Taylor’s arrangement of John Coltrane classic, Giant Steps. Dave Hickok lays down a cool trombone solo and is followed up by Enoch on the tenor sax. Jack Cook inserts a fine drum solo and the band takes on the legendary song like it was always meant to be a large ensemble piece in the first place.
Duke Ellington’s Do Nothin’ Til You Hear from Me (Bill Russell, lyrics) gets fresh look as Terry O’Bannon adds a cool organ to the band. They slide right into Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is the Ocean, arranged by Jerry Nowak. If you weren’t infatuated with Bonnie Bowden before now, this song will do the job. I mean, Good Lord.
Bonnie caps it all off with a vocal only introduction to Cole Porter’s From This Moment On. The band jumps in with Spooner’s fine bass line behind. It is a swinging, song of joie de vivre and great hope.
Bonnie delivers convincingly as she moves from pouty to pained, funny to flirty, and always lovely. There is nothing not to love about her.
The Angel City Big Band is flawless in their own virtuosity and emphatic dashes. They can be as languid as Bonnie and as playful as she is. This is a perfect pairing of band with vocalist.
Nobody detracted from this recording. The choosing of the pieces, the arrangements and original compositions, the musicianship and artistry from vocalist and instrumentalists, the recording and mixing and mastering, even the sepia-toned album cover, was all so very fitting.
A wonderful, wonderful album.