Review at All About Jazz

The Jim Levendis Big Band Project
by Jack Bowers
August 28, 2022

Jim Levendis knew that time was running out. In his mid-seventies, the veteran Philadelphia-area trumpeter and educator had contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), the effects of which were rapidly sapping his energy and ability to function. As the disease progressed, Levendis confided in Len Pierro, a band mate in the Ward Marston band, that there was one thing he would dearly love to do while he was still able: record some of the big-band arrangements he had written over the years and leave an album for his peers and future generations to enjoy. 

Pierro basically took it from there, gathering and editing Levendis' charts, assembling a seventeen-piece big band to play them, and scheduling rehearsal and recording dates in January 2022, in spite of the Covid pandemic. Levendis was able to attend those sessions and to take part from his home in the mixing and editing process. Levendis passed away on March 20; the Jim Levendis Big Band Project was released on June 30. 

As an arranger, Levendis was old-school, producing straight-ahead charts whose lively tempos and unforeseen curves helped keep them fresh and enticing. As he was not a composer, every number on the album is an evergreen from the Great American Songbook, save for a medley of Latin themes by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Lionel Hampton, and one hymn (Franz Gruber's timeless "Silent Night," a brief showpiece for trombones that closes the album). The ensemble is letter-perfect, as are the soloists, and to make absolutely sure of that, Pierro recruited Larry McKenna, one of the finest tenor saxophonists Philly has produced, to solo on "Taking a Chance on Love," "Easy to Love" and "Everything I Love." McKenna must have "loved" adding his voice, which is as perceptive and engaging as ever. 

A second tenor, Danny Muller, solos impressively on "Jeepers Creepers" and "Just in Time," while flugelhornist Tony DeSantis is featured on Hoagy Carmichael/Mitchell Parish's sunlit "One Morning in May." Others soloing are trumpeter Matt Gallagher, alto saxophonist Ron Kerber, trombonist Brian Pastor and pianist Tom Lawton. Lawton carries the melody on Steve Allen's "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," one of Levendis' few missteps, as that robust and upbeat theme warrants a full-throated cadenza by brass and reeds. 

Besides being a musician, Levendis was an avid bowler who logged twenty-three perfect 300 games. Although the Big Band Project lands a mark or two short of that, it is in the pocket far more often than not, and Levendis' desire to endow for others a splendid album of his big-band arrangements has been realized.