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All in the Recording

Doug Richards' local all-star jazz recording could make him famous … if only people could hear it.


The engaging big band session from Doug Richards and the Great American Musical Ensemble (G.A.M.E.) is innovative, ambitious and may be a career breakthrough for the longtime Virginia Commonwealth University faculty member and ex- leader of the jazz program. But since its recording in June, the CD has been more heard of than heard. With glowing reports from the musicians in the session and rumored release dates come and gone, the combination of mystery and anticipation has generated quite a buzz in jazz circles.

Before it can reach its audience, the album has to be marketed and distributed. Richards has been shopping the disc around to leading jazz labels. There is interest, but no commitments. Perhaps its because in an era that favors predictable, easily marketed recordings, Richards doesn't sound like anyone else.

As Richards listens to his masterwork nearly nine months after the recording, his hands reflexively conduct the session. "I work in miniatures," he says. "Each piece is a story." All of the selections are standards; well-known structures that provide a framework for the arranger's reinvention.

"West End Blues," based on a classic 1927 Louis Armstrong recording, stays close to the original at the opening and closing but takes an entirely different shape in-between. "It was written for NPR's 90th birthday tribute to Louis Armstrong," Richards says. "We were one of three bands selected to play." The melody is transformed with unconventional instrumentation, and expanded with very different solos from violinist Joe Kennedy Jr., stratospheric trumpeter Jon Faddis, and pianist Wendell Hill.

The affectionate salute to another city, "April in Paris," unfolds with a multi-layered collage of French culture including "The Rite of Spring," the can-can, Doppler-shifting sirens, chimes, and other sonic scraps before sliding past the main melody and settling into a 6/4 tango.

Six of the 15 selections on the 70-plus-minute recording feature Rene Marie. Her relaxed intimacy is a natural complement to Richards' intellectual style: The composer calls her "a perfect singer" for his music.

He responds by providing settings that accentuate her strengths. For example, the arrangement of "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine" has a concerto structure, treating the vocal and the instrumental lines as two equal voices: Rene sings; the band responds.

In addition to Marie and Kennedy, area jazz stalwarts trumpeter John D'earth and saxophonist Skip Gailes have featured roles.

The recording — made by Grammy-nominated engineer Bob Dawson — is first rate. Richards recalls that the first mix of the session used a lot of compression — a standard postproduction process that smoothes the sound by constraining the dynamic range. "I was horrified," he says. "I wanted to hear what I heard in the studio." With the compression removed the sound is strikingly immediate; the bass sounds are rich and clear, the brass has a powerful metallic edge.

After years of focusing on academia, Richards hopes to devote more time to performance. G.A.M.E. has several performances scheduled in the coming months including the Jazz Society Gala (with Rene Marie) in April and with Christian McBride at the University of Richmond in June.

"I would love to play regularly," Richards says. "Travel a bit, go to the festivals in Europe. Maybe even have a regular biweekly gig somewhere like Blues Alley."

"Its All in the G.A.M.E." could be the key. Richards knows the score and landing a distribution deal with a label is the next play; reaching a wider audience is the goal; after all, "Its All in the G.A.M.E."

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