Bill Simenson

Bill Simenson Orchestra

Big Alpaca


            Bill Simenson is a talented and quite original arranger-composer who is based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. He started playing cornet in fourth grade, later switching to trumpet. Other than two years spent after college in Norway where he studied briefly with Kenny Wheeler, Simenson has lived and performed in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area throughout much of his life. He has written for big bands during the past 20 years, has appeared in a countless number of settings as a freelance trumpeter, and has led the Bill Simenson Orchestra since 2012. Big Alpaca is their first recording.

            Simenson wrote and arranged the dozen songs on Big Alpaca for his 13-horn 17-piece orchestra. While his utilization of soprano-saxophonist Pete Whitman in the lead during many of the ensembles and his continually surprising arrangements at time recall the work of Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer, his harmonically-advanced charts are in his own style and certainly never sound predictable.

            This CD begins quietly on “Bedlamoogie” before building to an intense level in less than two minutes during the brief opener. “The Dune” has accents from the ensemble and an ominous feel from the rhythm section, showcasing the inventive playing of baritonist Gus Sandberg. On “Uptick,” Whitman’s soprano flies over the punctuations of the ensembles with his soloing sounding very much like an outgrowth of the arrangement and vice versa.  

            The rhythmic figures on “New Shoes” resolve into a swinging piece with fine solos from altoist Doug Little and trumpeter Simenson before it puts the focus on some dramatic ensembles. “Wheelman” is a particularly intriguing piece with drummer Dave Schmalenberger adding colorful tones and Clay Pufahl contributing some passionate ideas on tenor.

            One of the highpoints of the CD is “Steamboatin.’” The muted brass recalls early Duke Ellington, drum breaks interact with the ensembles, there are swinging solos from Whitman and Simenson, and the ensemble writing is masterful. “Mastodon” musically depicts the lumbering movements of a giant (and fortunately extinct) mammal. Trombonist Matt Hanzelka’s playing adds to the eerie and mysterious mood. “Pete’s Waltz” starts out as a light-hearted jazz waltz but becomes darker the longer the piece develops. “Big Alpaca” has a stop-time figure played by bassist Chris Bates that sets the stage for solos by trombonist Ryan Christianson and Simenson. This memorable set concludes with the mournful ballad “Might Have Been,” the ensemble-oriented “Titanium,” and the all-too-brief “Jerry’s Chaser (with tenor-saxophonist Scott Johnson).

            Fans of modern big band writing and exciting ensembles will find much to enjoy on Bill Simenson’s Big Alpaca. The musicians are top-notch and the writing is world class. Highly recommended.

Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author of 11 books including The Great Jazz Guitarists, Bebop, and Jazz On Record 1917-76.