Chicago Skyliners Big Band CD Reviews

Review of Contemporary Classics From Jazz Magazine

By Jack Bowers

This is the kind of album, says drummer Bill O’Connell, that his Chicago Skyliners must release from time to time to induce the paying gigs that help keep the ensemble together. But even though the songs on Big Bands Greatest Hits are for the most part Swing Era classics, the charts have been lovingly renovated by such contemporary craftsmen as Sammy Nestico, Tom Kubis, Oliver Nelson, Don Sebesky, Dave Wolpe and others, and the Skyliners dig into them with vigor and enthusiasm. As a result, the finished product sounds closer to Clayton–Hamilton, Maynard Ferguson or latter–day Woody Herman than to such swinging precursors as Basie, Ellington, Lunceford, Sy Oliver, Glenn Miller, the Dorsey brothers, Shaw or Goodman, to name but a few. Perhaps the closest the Skyliners come to mimicry is Dave Lowden’s celebrated arrangement for Basie of “April in Paris,” but O’Connell can’t resist tossing another curve by altering the familiar “one more time” ending. The leader gets to play Gene Krupa (to Bill Horn’s Goodman) on Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing,” which raised the King of Swing to the top of the big–band ladder in ’38, and anchors a potent rhythm section (pianist Reid Spears, bassist Steve Hashimoto) on every number from Joe Garland’s “In the Mood” (rearranged by Jeff Tyzik) to Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” (updated by Don Sebesky). There are vocals by Byron Woods on “Alright, Okay, You Win” and “Fly Me to the Moon” and a number of enterprising solos, especially by Horn (mostly on alto), tenors Bob Frankich and Frank Catalano, trumpeters Jim Peterson and Terry Connell, Spears and trombonist Mike Joyce. The terrain is well–traveled, that’s true, but mapped in a fresh and inventive way by O’Connell’s intrepid Skyliners. And like the era they so happily salute, they do swing.

Contact: Blue Birdland Records, 915 Christa Court, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007; phone 847–352–2455. web site, (also available from Kendor, Marina Music and Otter Distributors).

Track Listing: In the Mood; Things Ain’t What They Used to Be; Mack the Knife; Who Can I Turn To?; Begin the Beguine; In a Mellow Tone; Stardust; Which Craft; Alright, Okay, You Win; Fly Me to the Moon; Shiny Stockings; April in Paris; Opus One; A String of Pearls; Sing Sing Sing; Take the “A” Train (64:56).

Personnel: Bill O’Connell, leader, drums; Bill Horn, alto sax, flute; Jon Irabagon, alto sax; Bob Frankich, Frank Catalano, tenor sax; Chip Gdalman, baritone sax; Mike Joyce, Tom Stark, Rich Latka, Matt McDonald, Rich Moss, trombone; Brad Payne, bass trombone; Terry Connell, Jim Peterson, B.J. Levy, Ben Clark, trumpet; Reid Spears, piano; Steve Hashimoto, bass; Byron Woods, vocals.

Review of Contemporary Classics From Jazz Magazine

By Dave Nathan

Looking at the song list of Bill O'Connell's fine Chicago Skyliners Big Band latest album, one gets a sinking feeling that the band had regressed to regurgitating big band tunes and arrangements of yore, especially given the album subtitle, Big Band's Greatest Hits. But this concerns goes away when the CD is put into the player. This high flying group doesn't play familiar material exactly the way Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey did and especially the way Glenn Miller played it. Instead there's a more modern bent which energizes the players and excites the listener (although April in Paris retains much of the Basie flavor, with a spoof of "one more time" at the end). This is especially the case with solos. Jon Irabagon's alto on "A String of Pearls" is quite different than Tex Beneke might have approached the tune. The same is true with a wild individual effort by Bob Frankich on "Opus One" helped by a few on point measures from Steve Hashimoto's bass. Not all the cuts are from the big band era. Tom Kubis' play on words "Which Craft" is highlighted by a eye opening solo by first rank tenor Frank Catalano.

The vocal side of the era isn't forgotten. Byron Woods' hip style is heard on the tune made famous by Joe Williams "Alright, Okay, You Win" and then "Fly Me to the Moon". The latter features some Don Fagerquist like trumpet by Terry Connell in that it focuses on being lyrical rather than technically daring. O'Connell saves his high note exercise for "Begin the Beguine".

The same elements which characterize a Bill O'Connell session, interesting charts, tight ensemble playing and wonderful dynamics are found here on this latest release, with O'Connell presiding from behind the drum set. Very much recommended.

Track Listing: In the Mood; Things Ain't What They Used to Be; Mack the Knife; Who Can I Turn To?; Begin the Beguine; In a Mellow Tone; Stardust; Which Craft; Alright, Okay, You win; Fly Me to the Moon; Shiny Stockings; April in Paris; Opus One; String of Pearls; Sing Sing Sing; Take the "A" Train

Personnel: Bill O'Connell - Drums; Bill Horn - Alto Sax/Clarinet; Jon Irabagon - Alto Sax; Bob Frankich, Frank Catalano - Tenor Sax; Chip Gdalman - Baritone Sax; Mike Joyce, Rich Latka, Tom Stark, Matt McDonald, Rich Moss - Trombone; Brad Payne - Bass Trombone; Terry Connell, Jim Peterson, B. J. Levy, Ben Clark - Trumpet; Reid Spears - Piano; Steve Hashimoto - Bass; Byron Woods - Vocals; Will Koch - Conductor

Review of Contemporary Classics From Mainly Big Bands

By Dave Nathan

Now here is a band dedicated to no nonsense swing music. On this occasion the leader has selected some of the big band classics and taken advantage of new arrangements by Nestico, Tyzic, Lalama, Kubis, Wolpe and more. The way this music responds to the new treatments is testiment to the quality and timelessness of the original interpretations. The Tracks: In the Mood , Things Ain't What They Used To be, Mack The Knife, Who Can I Turn To, Begin The Beguine, Mellow Tone, Stardust, Which Craft (sic), Alright OK You Win, Fly Me To The Moon, Shiny Stockins, April In Paris, Opus One, String Of Pearls, Sing Sing Sing and A Train. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy this excellent CD. You'll whistle, tap your feet and maybe dance.

Review of Play It Again, Sammy From Jazz Magazine

By Jack Bowers

For those who can’t get enough Basie, especially Basie–style charts written by quintessential swingmeister Sammy Nestico, Play It Again, Sammy may be just the ticket. The disc’s subtitle is “The Count Basie / Sammy Nestico Years,” and much of the material on offer has been recycled from an earlier LP (and later, CD), Basie Straight Ahead, by Chicago–area drummer Bill O’Connell’s first–class big band (actually two bands, as tracks 1–6 were recorded in 1997, tracks 7–14 five years earlier sans the Freddie Green–style rhythm guitar that was so integral a part of the Basie ensemble’s makeup). O’Connell has added two (unnamed) new charts by Nestico and Rick Hirsch’s earnest tribute, “Play It Again, Sammy,” to bring the playing time to a more reasonable (but still relatively meager) 49:06. Recording quality in both instances is splendid, with Dave Ivaz’s rhythm guitar lending the more recent selections an indefinable magnetism that is lacking in those from ’92. Aside from that, O’Connell’s ensembles give Nestico his due with taught, always–swinging interpretations that invoke the Basie band’s indomitable spirit but never devolve into mere impersonation. On the other hand, there is only so much that one can do with compositions and arrangements that are so closely identified with one of the era’s most celebrated big bands, as Nestico’s charts assuredly are, and much of what is presented on Play It Again, Sammy is so familiar that the more knowledgeable Basie fan may regard them as bordering on wearisome while those who are not as well–acquainted with the remarkable Basie / Nestico connection may find them thoroughly enjoyable, which they are on their own terms. As we said, O’Connell’s Skyliners always play well, and those whose ears and record libraries are capacious enough to accommodate yet another album in the Basie / Nestico tradition should warmly welcome this one.

Contact: Blue Birdland Records, 915 Christa Court, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007; phone 847–352–2455. web site, (also available from Kendor, Marina Music and Otter Distributors).

Track Listing: Play It Again, Sammy; Dimensions in Blue; Walk in the Park; Basie–Straight Ahead (accessible version); It’s Oh, So Nice; Lonely Street; Fun Time; The Queen Bee; That Warm Feeling; Switch in Time; Magic Flea; Hay Burner; Ya Gotta Try; Basie–Straight Ahead (professional version) (49:26).

Personnel: Bill O’Connell, leader, drums. The 1997 Band (tracks 1–6) — Bob Frankich, Ken Partyka, alto sax; Brian Sjoertinga, Kent Lawson, tenor sax; Rick Hirsch, baritone sax; Mark Corey, Edwin Williams, David Gross, trombone; Brad Payne, bass trombone; Kirk Garrison, Terry Connell, Jared Braeme, Jim Peterson, trumpet; Bobby Schiff, piano; Dave Ivaz, guitar; John Elmquist, bass; Will Koch, conductor. The 1992 Band (tracks 7–14) — Howard Weiss, John Schmitt, alto sax; Kurt Kreimier, Paul Kober, tenor sax; Jim Christopher, baritone sax; Mark Corey, Scotty Fisher, Fritz Hocking, trombone; Bill Curran, bass trombone; Connell, Brad Shermock, Dale Kerner, Dave Ruth, trumpet; Eric Scott, piano; Joe Bonadonna, bass; Jim Short, conductor.

Review of Play It Again, Sammy From Jazziz Magazine

By Mark Holston

Drummer Bill O'Connell's Chicago Skyliners is on of the Windy City's mainstay contemporary big bands. On Play It Again, Sammy (Blue Birdland Records), the group partners with composer and arranger Sammy Nestico, a primary Basie collaborator in the '60s and '70s, to re-record arrangements used on 1967's Basie Straight Ahead, an album long out of print and never released on CD. Listed as an album by the Bill O'Connell Big Band, Play It Again, Sammy is a focused, swinging affair with tidy arrangements -- average length about 3:30 minutes -- wherein extended soloing takes a back seat to ensemble blowing. As a kind of "missing link" look at Basie circa 1970, the session is a treat. O'Connell's band is a powerful and versatile ensemble deserving of wider recognition.

Available through Blue Birdland Records, 915 Christa Court, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007; phone 847–352–2455. web site,

Review of Unfinished Business From Jazziz Magazine

By Mark Holston

For drummer/leader Bill O'Connell, the purpose of cutting Unfinished Business (Sea Breeze Jazz) was to perform "great jazz songs" and advance the cause of what he terms "the progressive big band." Among the swing and bop standards to which the O'Connell Big Band applies a contemporary approach are Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things," Illinois Jacquet's "Robbin's Nest," and "All The Things You Are," while the album's tour de force is Dave Barduhn's arrangement of Miles Davis' "Milestones." The band has a surplus of exceptional soloists, including trumpeters Jim Peterson, Kirk Garrison, and Rex Richardson, and saxophonist Dave Creighton. High-powered ensemble playing and two appearances by vocalist Sherrilynn Riley, who adds a soulful touch, make Unfinished Business a most satisfying date.

Review of That Toddlin' Town From

By Jack Bowers

DownBeat magazine includes in its annual polls a category called TDWR (“talent deserving wider recognition”). Big bands are excluded, of course — but if they weren’t, a wonderful candidate for the honor would be drummer Bill O’Connell’s Chicago Skyliners Big Band which is nearing the end of its first decade in near–obscurity but deserves much better. The band’s fifth recording (and second on Blue Birdland) encompasses more than 65 minutes of solid, straight–ahead big–band swinging that finds the Skyliners in a buoyant frame of mind from Dizzy Gillespie’s lissome “Tanga” (introduced by O’Connell’s 20–second drum passage, “The Apocalypse”) through the closing numbers, “Walk in the Park” and “Dimensions in Blue,” by one of O’Connell’s favorite composer/arrangers, Sammy Nestico. Among the many other highlights: Mike Tomaro’s bluesy “Tad Boppin’” (with splendid solos by trumpeter Jim Peterson, baritone Chip Gdalman and pianist Ron Mills); Kirk Garrison’s marvelous trumpet work on Lionel Bart’s “Where Is Love“ (so moving it brought tears to my eyes); the fiery ensemble passages that enfold Bill Horn’s dancing alto on Doug Beach’s “Vertigo”; two striking originals by Matt Harris, “Cabeza de Carne” (Meat Head) and “Madelyn’s Song” (which features another fine pianist, Bobby Schiff); Nestico’s Latin burner, “Celebracion” (with Tito Carrillo on trumpet and one of my favorite lead altos, Bob Frankich, soloing on tenor); Peterson’s shimmering trumpet on Nestico’s lovely ballad, “Rachael”; the swinging sax solis and stratospheric trumpet exchanges on Bird’s “Dexterity”; and Rick Hirsch’s Basie–like salute to Nestico, “Play It Again, Sammy” (with tasteful solos by Shiff and trumpeter Terry Connell). There are three vocals, by Byron Woods (“Chicago”), Sherrilynn Riley (“Fly Me to the Moon”) and Woods and Riley together (“How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”). Whether your knowledge of big bands is rudimentary, respectable or encyclopedic, the Chicago Skyliners will expand your awareness while giving your ears ample nourishment.

Track Listing: The Apocalypse; Tanga; Tad Boppin’; Where Is Love; Vertigo; Cabeza de Carne (Meat Head); Madelyn’s Song; Chicago; How Do You Keep the Music Playing?; Fly Me to the Moon; Celebracion; Rachael; Dexterity; Play It Again, Sammy; Walk in the Park; Dimensions in Blue (65:17).

Personnel: Bob Frankich, Bill Horn, Ken Partyka, Mike Bazan, Brian Sjoertinga, Kent Lawson, Chip Gdalman, Rick Hirsch, reeds; Russ Phillips, Dave Gross, Mark Corey, Edwin Williams, Dave Gross, trombones; Gross, bass trombone; Brad Payne, Kirk Garrison, Terry Connell, Tito Carrillo, Jim Peterson, Jared Brame, trumpets; Bobby Schiff, Ron Mills, piano; Dave Ivaz, guitar; Steve Hashimoto, John Elmquist, bass; Dave Rush, percussion; Rush, Bill O’Connell, drums; Sherrilynn Riley, Byron Woods, vocals.

Review of That Toddlin' Town From JAZZ Improv Magazine

By Jack Bowers

...lavish and delectable"

Drummer Bill O’Connell has managed to keep his Chicago-based ensemble together for more than a decade, and those who admire swinging, straight-down-the-fairway big-band music-making owe him a debt of thanks for that. Toddlin Town, the band's fifth recording (and second on O'Connell's Blue Birdland label), finds the Skyliners in a cheerful frame of mind from Dizzy Gillespie's hot-tempered "Tanga" through a well-drawn syllabus of standards and originals at whose terminus resides a dyad of delightful compositions, "Walk in the Park" and "Dimensions in Blue," by the peerless Sammy Nestico. Immediately preceding them is Rick Hirsch's Basie- inspired homage to Nestico, "Play It Again Sammy." The ensemble is as limber and steady as they come (for conclusive proof, one need only listen to Doug Beach's "Vertigo" or Charlie Parker's "Dexterity"), O'Connell anchors a first-class rhythym section (with pianists Bobby Schiff or Ron Mills, guitarist Dave Ivaz, bassists Steve Hashimoto or John Elmquist, percussionist Dave Rush) and the Skyliners house a squadron of sharp-shooting soloists who are never less than impressive. They include trumpeters Terry Connell ("Tanga," "Play It Again, Sammy"), Jim Peterson (Mike Tomaro's bluesy "Tad Boppin'," Nestico's ballad "Rachel"), Kirk Garrison (the haunting show-stopper "Where Is Love") and Tito Carillo (Nestico's Latin flag-waver, "Celebracion"); tenor Bob Frankich ("Tanga," "Chicago," "Celebracion"), alto Bill Horn ("Vertigo"), Mills and baritone Chip Gdalman ("Tad Boppin'"), trombonisits Russ Phillips ("Cabeza de Carne," "Chicago") and Mark Corey ("Walk in the Park," "Dimensions in Blue") and the entire trumpet section ("Dexterity"). There are three vocals, by Byron Woods ("Chicago"), Sherrilynn Riley ("Fly Me to the Moon") and Woods/Riley (Michel Legrand's "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?"). For connoisseurs with an appetite for big-band Jazz, a lavish and delectable banquet.

Review of Jazz Alive From The Chicago Tribune

By Howard Reich

Chicago has no shortage of first rate big bands, as this release from drummer Bill O'Connell's ensemble attests. From the opening track, the aptly named "Get Up And Go," this band bristles with rhythmic energy.  In addition, tenor saxophonist Mike Finnerty breathes fire on several tracks, trumpeter Rex Richardson improvises with technical virtuosity on some passages, lyrical poetry in others.  In various compositions by Sammy Nestico, O'Connell and friends capture the composer's melodic and rhythmic idiosyncrasies with style and finesse.  And in "Zihuantenejo," from the Maynard Ferguson small group, the band evokes Ferguson's volcanic style even while refining it a bit. In all, a terrific CD from an important local band.

Review of Live In River Grove From

By Jack Bowers

Live in River Grove represents a departure for drummer Bill O’Connell’s Chicago Skyliners Big Band as it marks the first recording on which the ensemble has backed a singer all the way. This is the 7th CD by the O’Connell ensemble and features for the first time vocalist Leslie Beukelman. Leslie’s perky voice is heard on all save one of the albums sixteen tracks and the band is clearly there to underline her talent. The charts, by Matt Harris, Don Menza, Roger Myers, Kirk Garrison, Sammy Nestico, Mark Taylor and others, are impressive, as is the band, and there are a number of succinct but engaging solos by saxophonists Bob Frankich and Ken Partyka, trumpeter Terry Connell and trombonist John Mose. Connell and Partyka are showcased on the lone non-vocal selection, Michel Legrand’s Summer Way.

Contact: Blue Birdland Records, 915 Christa Court, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007; phone 847–352–2455. web site, (also available from Kendor, Marina Music and Otter Distributors).

Track Listing: Who Can I Turn To?; Darn That Dream; I Just Found Out About Love; My One and Only Love; Watch What Happens; How do you Keep the Music Playing?; Alright, OK, You Win; Teach Me Tonight; Deed I Do; The Very Thought of You; I’ve Got You Under My Skin; Misty; They Can’t Take That Away From Me; The Way You Look Tonight; Summer’s Way-The Theme from Summer of ’42; Almost Like Being in Love; (52:21).

Personnel: Leslie Beukelman, vocalist; Ken Parytka, alto sax and flute; Bob Rzeszutko, alto sax, flute and clarinet; Bob Frankich, tenor sax and flute; Jarod Bufe, tenor sax; Kurt Berg, baritone sax; John Mose, Dan Johnson, Tim Caufman, Dixie Normus, trombone; Ryan Miller, bass trombone; Terry Connell, Greg Duncan, Gerald Bailey, Oliver Kloezoff, trumpet; Reid Spears, piano; Keith Brady, bass; Bill O’Connell, drums.

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