Talk about mixed emotions. It’s always a pleasure to welcome a new disc (or two) from the outrageously talented Jazz ensembles at the University of Northern Colorado; on the other hand, as Tevye was fond of saying in Fiddler on the Roof,
it’s disheartening to learn that Alive XVII
is, as its label implies, the last one to be produced by the ensemble’s long–time conductor, Gene Aitken, who came to Greeley in 1976 and has established one of the country’s leading Jazz Studies programs at UNC. Aitken relinquished the baton last April, immediately after the second of these recordings was made during the university’s annual Jazz Festival, which he started with eight performing groups in ’76 (today it hosts more than 325). In recognition of his achievements, Aitken was inducted in 1995 into the International Association of Jazz Educators’ (IAJE) Hall of Fame where he rubs shoulders with such Jazz icons as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and others. But what is most important to him as an educator, Aitken says, “is to see your students succeed.” Succeed they have, as professional musicians as well as in Jazz Studies programs across the country, and if the evidence presented on these conclusive recordings under Aitken’s guidance is reliable, they’ll be succeeding for many years to come. At the college level, Aitken’s ensembles are sound in every sector, as hip and well–schooled in Jazz fundamentals as one could envision. And thanks to his adventurous nature, they don’t mind taking chances or playing music that’s a step beyond the ordinary. While I’ve not always been enamored by the UNC ensembles’ repertoire, I must concede that the performances are always sharp and provocative. Disc 1, performed in concert by the 1998–99 ensemble, opens with a buoyant version of Luiz Bonfa’s melodious theme from “Black Orpheus” and includes two compositions by Jim McNeely (“Pete’s Feet,” “Extra Credit”) and one each by Maria Schneider (“Coming About”), Jon Leonard (“Kluane”), Vince Mendoza (“Dewey”) and Kenny Garrett (“For Openers,” a dazzling tour de force
for the saxophone section). The soloists, each of whom earns high marks, include trumpeter Steve Roach, alto saxophonist Lance Rigby, tenors Bob Kleinschmidt and Farrell Vernon, baritone Nick Frazee, guitarist Kyle Malone, pianist Ryan Frane and drummer Jeff Davis. Disc 2, which features the 1999–2000 ensemble, also in concert, is no less persuasive with two of McNeely’s more accessible works, “Jump Start” and “Empty House,” his luminous arrangement of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and Gerry Stockton’s of Bronislau Kaper’s “Invitation,” Eric Richards’ slam–bang “View from the Edge,” Kenny Werner’s impetuous “Sasumi,” Ellington’s placid “Sentimental Mood” and Mendoza’s capricious but swinging “Sketches IV.” Again, the soloists are top–drawer; to those on Disc 1, add alto saxophonist Allen Zurcher (showcased on “Wee Small Hours” and “Sentimental Mood”), trumpeter Tom Barber, tenor Nathan Keedy, trombonist Doug Scarborough, pianist Andy Nevala, drummer Thomas Marko, percussionist Darin Kamstra and soprano Suzanne Morrison, whose crystalline voice lends pleasing color to "Sasumi" and "Sketches IV." The sound quality on both discs is above average save for some inexcusable feedback that mars Zurcher's solo on "Wee Small Hours." What is clear from the outset is that the UNC ensembles were primed and ready for these last concerts under Aitken's supervision. If one must say goodbye, this is indeed the proper way to do it, and Aitken must be enormously pleased by the terrific send-off he was given by his grateful students. Thanks, Gene, for a job well done; if scientists do learn to clone humans, they should start with people like you.
Contact:UNC Jazz Press, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO 80639. Phone 970–351–2577; fax 970–351–2536; e–mail JazzPress@arts.unco.edu; web site, www.arts.unco.edu/