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After Midnight - Opus 1/2

Reviewed by Wildy Haskell,, March 2011
Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

"Clarinetist Roger Campbell has always been inspired by the music of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa and others of the big band era.  In 1997 he formed After Midnight, a classic jazz sextet with a modern feel.  Tackling classics of the big band era and some of the jazz hits of today, Campbell and After Midnight have made an art of playing in the classic big band/swing style while putting their own modern stamp on the sound. Opus is their debut album, recorded in 2004 and released in early 2006, showcasing the vibrant energy and glow of a band that truly loves the music they’re making.

Opus opens with “Air Mail Special,” a tune first made popular by Lionel Hampton.  Here it’s delivered in a lively and energetic improv style.  Campbell is over-the-top on clarinet, diving in and out of the lead like a starling over an updraft, while Greg Harris is pure class on the vibraphone, and Bill Stephens offers up revelatory piano licks.  “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” features the smoky, superb alto voice of Rekha Ohal, who manages to steal the show.  The band is right there with her, however, and the breakdown of just clarinet and percussion is chill inducing.  “A Smooth One” is steeped in big band sound and very enjoyable.

Listeners get a dose of dueling clarinets on Benny Goodman’s “Stealin’ Apples,” with Bill Pontarelli sitting in alongside Roger Campbell.  The two engage in dazzling harmonies along the way, creating a several “wow” moments in just the one song.  Ohal sits in again on “God Bless The Child,” raising the electricity on a bluesy offering that’s among the best on the album.  “Jolly Roger” is a low-key piece where clarinet is the lead voice, but bassist Ced Forsyth nearly steals the show behind the scenes.  “Opus ” has an almost Klezmer/jazz feel to it; a highly enjoyable side in the album’s belly that’s a pleasant surprise. 

“Twenty Two Cent Shuffle” is an After Midnight original, a giddy, jaunty composition with a mischievous side.  Clarinet and vibes stand out, but Mike McCullough makes a distinctive impression on guitar.  “Campbell Zoop” is another original, although it sounds like it might have been a 1940’s era commercial jingle.  Ohal is as impressive as always on decidedly lighter fare.  Benny Goodman’s “Rachel’s Dream” is high-energy improvisational jazz that will make you want to get your jitterbug shoes on.  “Flying Home” is a dynamic reading of the Lionel Hampton classic.  You won’t be able to sit still as After Midnight rips the roof off the place in the album’s high point. 

“Dream A Little Dream” is technically perfect, although the relaxed approach taken here is perhaps a bit too subdued.  Rekha Ohal brings out some of what’s missing on personality and voice alone, however, a solid save.  “Slipped Disc” abounds with musical humor and a light step.  Get your dancing shows on.  If you have a heartbeat, you won’t be able to sit still through this one.  After Midnight captures a live sound on George Shearing and George David Weiss’ “Lullaby Of Birdland,” delivering an amazing performance that drips with inspiration.  After Midnight winds things down with “Memories Of You,” the Andy Razaf/Eubie Banks tune that was originally performed on Broadway in Blackbirds of 1930 before being immortalized in a 1956 version by Benny Goodman.  The piano-driven feel of the version offered here is refreshing. 

After Midnight does big band jazz and swing with style, flair, and a bit of modern attitude.  Campbell and company clearly love the classic sounds of Goodman, Hampton and the rest, but add little touches to make it their own.  Opus is a joy to the ears."