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Stephen Philip Harvey loves superheroes. The Pittsburgh-born/Maryland-based saxophonist, composer, teacher and bandleader grew up watching colorful costumes and punch-to-the-face problem solving on Saturday morning cartoons (though not reading comic books that spawned them). Though music eventually overtook his interest in superheroics, his childhood infatuation remains a creative inspiration. Trading in archetypes rather than specific characters, Harvey uses his considerable skills as composer and arranger on Smash! to pay tribute to the world of capes and costumes with his big band.
“Zephyr,” for example, is an ode to the joy of flying, wind in the hero’s face, cape flapping behind him or her, and the melody matches the feeling. A blend of compassion and melancholy, “Projectile Dysfunction” extends a sympathetic hand to the innocent bystanders on the city streets during a fight between powered beings, ducking debris and enduring shrapnel and insurance claims. The fusion-powered “Mechanical Men” salutes the robots and androids of the superhero universe, while the rollicking title cut heralds superstrength and the art of the well-placed blow. The ingenious “Nefarious Plots” gets funky with its sly nod to the bad habit of supervillains explaining their evil plans, giving their opponents a chance to escape and foil everything. The buoyant “Party Song” was written outside of the theme, but the generally celebratory vibe fits the tributary concept.
Harvey’s arrangements emphasize riffs and melodies over improvisation, though he certainly leaves room for his crew to express themselves when called upon. But his focus on tunes keeps the songs effervescent and accessible, making Smash! perfect for that superhero lover in your life that needs a blast of twenty-first century large ensemble jazz.