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I don’t know what brought the National Jazz Ensemble together or what ever happened to it, but I’m thankful that Hank O’Neal, the head man at Chiaroscuro Records, had the foresight to usher the ensemble into a studio to record three albums before it went the way of so many other promising ideas and vanished into the mists of time. Those weighty sessions from more than a quarter-century ago, all conducted by bassist / leader Chuck Israels, have been condensed into one generously timed CD whose sixteen numbers were chosen by Israels himself.
The NJE was a “repertory” orchestra, focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on Jazz classics from the swing and big-band eras, and the album is liberally sprinkled with showpieces by Ellington, Basie, Jelly Roll Morton, Horace Silver, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and others, complementing newer works by Israels, David Berger, Rod Levitt and pianist Bill Evans who makes a guest appearance to play on his own composition, “Very Early.”
Evans is by no means the only recognizable name in the lineup; the NJE was home to such up- and-coming young talents as trumpeter Tom Harrell, tenor saxophonists Sal Nistico and Joe Romano, pianist Ben Aronov, drummer Bill Goodwin and bassist Steve Gilmore, as well as veterans Jimmy Maxwell (trumpet) and Jimmy Knepper (trombone). The ensemble also welcomes a second guest, the incomparable alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who is outstanding on Israels’ striking composition, “Solar Complexes” (later to be known simply as “Solar”). The same can be said of Evans on “Very Early,” an enchanting waltz whose eloquent passages for brass and reeds lead into and out of his engaging solos and others by Harrell and Nistico.
Nistico, who would go on to star in Woody Herman’s Third Herd (or was it the fourth?), is typically high-spirited sitting in for Lester Young on Basie’s nimble “Every Tub,” which opens the album. Harrell and Aronov add trenchant solos on that one, after which alto Greg Herbert and trumpeter Dan Hayes share the stage on Dave Berger’s au courant twelve-tone blues, “Understanding Depression.” Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp” is pure fun, skimming merrily along behind lively solos by Maxwell, Herbert and Dennis Anderson (who trade salvos on soprano).
Margot Hanson’s wordless vocal defines Ellington’s dreamy “Transblucency” (handsome solos courtesy of trombonists Knepper and Levitt and clarinetist Anderson). “Solar Complexes” and “Very Early” follow Horace Silver’s hasty “Room 608” (showcasing Harrell, Nistico and Goodwin) and precede another of Morton’s enduring works, “King Porter Stomp,” orchestrated by Gil Evans and featuring Arnie Lawrence’s frisky alto sax. Lawrence is heard again with Maxwell (muted), an unnamed baritone (Ken Berger?) and trombonist Levitt (also muted) on the latter’s colorful tone poem “His Master’s Voice,” and Aronov, Harrell and Romano are the soloists on Israels’ well-named “Skipping Tune.”
“Stompin’ at the Savoy” embodies nice work by Aronov, Romano, Maxwell and alto Lawrence Feldman; Ellington’s seldom-heard “Lady of the Lavender Mist” showcases Knepper’s elegant trombone, and Bird’s bop standard, “Confirmation,” elicits hot-blooded solos from Harrell and Feldman. Israels wrote “Blues for O.P.” (Oscar Pettiford), on which Gilmore, Aronov and guitarist Steve Brown are featured, and the ensemble wraps things up with Monk’s “I Mean You,” featuring trumpeter Mike Lawrence in Hall Overton’s lively arrangement, and Louis Armstrong’s playful “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” (arranged by Dave Berger), on which Knepper and Maxwell lead the parade.
Sound quality is acceptable throughout but tracks 1-7, recorded in 1975, a year earlier than tracks 8-16, are free of surface noise, whereas the others clearly sound as though they were transferred to disc from an LP, not a tape. But the music itself more than compensates for that minor blemish, and if you missed the National Jazz Ensemble the first time around, do whatever you can to make sure that doesn’t happen again. You won’t be displeased.
Track Listing: Every Tub; Understanding Depression; Black Bottom Stomp; Transblucency; Room 608; Solar
Complexes; Very Early; King Porter Stomp; His Master
Personnel: Tracks 1-7 -- Chuck Israels, conductor, bass (1, 4, 7); Jimmy Maxwell, Tom Harrell, Dan
Hayes, Dave Berger, trumpet; Jimmy Knepper, Rod Levitt, Joe Randazzo, trombone; John Clark (7),
French horn; Greg Herbert, Lawrence Feldman, Sal Nistico, Dennis Anderson, Ken Berger, Lee
Konitz (6), reeds; Ben Aronov, Bill Evans (7), piano; Steve Brown, guitar; Lisle Atkinson (2, 3, 5, 6),
bass; Bill Goodwin, drums; Margot Hanson (4), voice. Tracks 8-16 -- Israels, conductor;
Maxwell, Harrell, Dave Berger, Mike Lawrence, trumpet; Knepper, Levitt, Gerry Chamberlain,
trombone; Feldman, Ken Berger, Arnie Lawrence, Joe Romano, Dennis Anderson, reeds; Aronov,
piano; Brown, guitar; Steve Gilmore, bass; Goodwin, drums.