Ralph Carmichael, one of America’s most prominent born–again bandleaders, has abundant faith in big bands and in their capacity to help deliver a Christian–centered message of love, peace and redemption. Friends Live
was recorded at Southern California College in Costa Mesa, 50 years after Carmichael’s graduation, class of ’47. As the song titles — “The Savior Is Waiting,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Be Still My Soul” and so on — make clear, this is music with meaning beyond the mere exposition of notes on paper. On the other hand, Carmichael never overlooks the fundamental purpose of big–band Jazz, which is to swing. He’s a terrific arranger whose charts, no matter how forthright the religious message, are consistently dynamic and refreshing. The bands themselves, well–stocked with many of the most respected Jazz and studio musicians in Southern California, are beyond reproach. On Friends Live,
the message is verbalized by Carmichael’s choir (“Love,” “The Man”) and guest singers Larnelle Harris (“Here and Now I Believe”), Sharalee Lewis (“His Eye Is on the Sparrow”) and Dave Boyer (“Come on Home”); on Big Band Christmas
— recorded in concert at Speer Studios in Nashville — by guest singer Margaret Becker (“Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Away in a Manger”) and the Carmichael Carolers (“Sleigh Ride” and a six–tune Christmas medley). No vocalist could ask for sturdier instrumental backing than this. Some of the charts on Big Band Christmas
were written originally in 1961 for an album of seasonal music by the Stan Kenton Orchestra. On both of these more recent occasions the ensemble is paramount, although there are some enterprising solos within each of them by trumpeter Baptist (flugel on “Silent Night”), keyboard wizard Hugenberger and saxophonists Lozano and Liston (especially on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”). Also worth noting on Friends Live
is Carmichael’s scorching arrangement of the finale, “Be Still My Soul” (I challenge your feet to be still while it’s playing). Big Band Christmas
opens with another smoldering chart, “Joy to the World,” with drummer Field adding bold exclamation points behind the brass, as he does throughout both programs, and includes a colorful fugue–like treatment of “The Holly and the Ivy.” The concert was video taped, and the disc embodies the music without Carmichael’s introductory remarks, which accounts in part for its relatively brief (39:49) playing time. But Carmichael makes every moment count, as he does on Friends Live,
and, message or no, has constructed two superb and swinging big–band albums.
Track listing: Live — Here and Now I Believe; The Savior Is Waiting; Love; Love Is Surrender; His Eye Is on the Sparrow; Beyond All Time; Come On Home; Peace in the Valley; The Man; Just a Closer Walk with Thee; Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen; Be Still My Soul (46:36). Big Band Christmas — Joy to the World; Once in Royal David’s City; Silent Night; We Three Kings; Go Tell It on the Mountain; Angels We Have Heard on High; Caroling, Caroling; Sleigh Ride; The Holly and the Ivy; Christmas Medley; Good King Wenceslas; God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen; Away in a Manger; O Come All Ye Faithful (39:49).