Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble shows off swagger 

“The theme for tonight is songs we’ve not done in a very long time,” announced Keith Pray early in Tuesday night’s show by his Big Soul Ensemble at the Cock ’n Bull in Galway.

The 17-piece modernist jazz big band played everything with their usual swing and swagger, without rust and only one restart, as detailed presong discussions smoothed over potential rough spots.

Since weather moved the band’s regular last-Tuesday-of-the-month show indoors from the Bull’s patio, they shoehorned into a side room of the converted barn. While this compromised the sight lines for some in the small, cold-night audience, the sound blended beautifully.

They warmed up the place (as did a bright blaze in the fireplace) with Pray’s own “Walkin’ the Dog,” piano trio intro and coda sandwiching simmering trumpets, mellow saxophones and confident solos by Chris Pasin (trumpet) and Pray himself (alto sax).

“Fried Buzzard” started with a big, all-in blast that subsided behind Caitlin Fay’s baritone sax solo and Elias Assimakopoulos’s trombone, then percolated up around them. Pray’s arrangements often bring in the whole band during solos in a sink-or-swim challenge that everybody met all night.

Things got loose only in Pray’s “Okwah,” but he soon restored order as Pasin’s trumpet and the sax section led the way.

The staccato attack in “Goin’ Home” set the stage for the similar rhythmic punch they put on “Down By the Riverside,” mutating both beat and chords as the whole band climbed aboard Adam Streeter’s tuba riffs like kids clambering onto a Mardi Gras parade float. Here, Omar Williams lit up a sparking trumpet break.

Pray has long favored songs of Alan Ferber and uncorked the trombonist’s bouncy, swinging “Get Sassy,” taking the main solo himself over a Latin-y swirl of saxes.

Two tenor soloists swapped short breaks in (yeah, tenor saxophonist) Joe Henderson’s “Punjab,” Brian Patneaude riffing breaks 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9; and Awan Rashad doing 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 before they blended at the end.

After that very heads-up number came the 2 a.m.-style blues “Get Sassy,” the soloists standing up as they played until a handful of players mushroomed up out of the throng: Dave Fisk, tenor; Steve Lambert, trumpet; Travis Malone, trombone; Caitlin Fay, baritone sax; Chris Pasin, trumpet; Awan Rashad, tenor; and Ben O’Shea, trombone. Early on, Fisk played only a brief statement until Pray cued him to stretch out; and the solo-dominated middle section felt playfully cacophonous before they rebuilt the blend.

Patneaude’s “Unending” naturally featured the composer in inventive exploration of his own melody. O’Shea co-starred; so did the tight-all-night rhythm section of pianist David Gleason, bassist Lou Smaldone and drummer Bob Haleck.

“One Mint Julep” from the Basie book pulsed with syncopated swing energy, trombonist Malone and tenor sax-man Dave Fisk at the wheel.

Then, Sammy Nestico’s “Blues Machine” showcased Fisk again, and trombonist O’Shea over wonderfully droll, big, sax-section playing.

While the band often discussed the songs before launching them, Pray assigning solos, for example, his Big Soul Ensemble played with the power and clarity they’ve built in years of monthly shows, often without rehearsals in between.

They’ll take December off, then resume Jan. 30.

Michael Hochanadel is a Nippertown contributor.

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