If a big–band album has no title or liner notes, one must presume that the ensemble and its music speak for themselves — and although the Big Time Jazz Orchestra from wintry Fargo, ND / Moorhead, MN, hasn’t yet acquired a consistently persuasive voice, it does have some agreeable statements to make on its debut recording. Among the strongest are those by the orchestra’s founder, tenor saxophonist Randy Lee, and trombonists Tim Stratioti and Chris Oberholtzer on Lee’s easygoing ballad, “Sometimes Down,” Lee, Oberholtzer and drummer Dave Schmalenberger on Tom Matta’s “Eleventh Hour,” and the group as a whole (complementing crisp solos by Oberholtzer and bassist Gordy Johnson) on pianist Mike Pagan’s multi–hued composition, “Tacitus Plus.” Pagan arranged the session’s only standard, Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You,” on which the BTJO ably supports vocalist Steve Vecchi (who sounds like a performer one should see as well as hear, as personality seems to be his greatest asset). Perhaps it’s due in part to the recording itself, but the orchestra seems at times to lack enough firepower to accomplish its mission. This is especially apparent on the first three selections, Scott Anderson’s “Slightly Watered Down,” Greg Kehl Moore’s “Tubs of Slaw” and Brad Bombardier’s tongue–in–cheek “Carnival of Venison.” The BTJO then takes an upward turn and displays more muscle on “Sometimes Down,” Moore’s “M Fred Romp,” “Eleventh Hour,” “Tacitus Plus” and “The Song Is You.” As for togetherness, I’d rate the ensemble at college level, which nowadays is almost the same as an unreserved endorsement. Soloists are on a similar plane with Lee and Oberholtzer the most charismatic. The orchestra’s music is serious, its mission even more so. The BTJO was incorporated in 1996 as a non–profit group whose purposes include educating young people about the uniquely American contribution to music known as Jazz. As a part of that mission, the orchesta takes part in an annual joint concert with a local school or university. Any orchestra that helps keep the banner of big–band Jazz flying high warrants unreserved applause. The BTJO may be a step or two removed from Basie or Herman, but its ongoing success is no less important to the future of Jazz. Let’s get behind it, Jazz fans, and push!
Track listing: Slightly Watered Down; Tubs of Slaw; Carnival of Venison (No. 42 in the “Old Book”); Sometimes Down; M Fred Romp; Eleventh Hour; Tacitus Plus; The Song Is You (55:06).
Rich Mowers, Sandra Bergeland, Randy Lee, Greg Kehl Moore, Brad Bombardier, woodwinds; Mike Stellmaker, Tim Stratioti, John Cox, Kurt Hegle, Chris Oberholtzer, trombones; Scott Young, Chet Johnson, David Haaversen, Charlie Liebfried, Bernie Bernstein, Ramon Vasquez, trumpets; Brian Knox, Mike Pagan, piano; Steve Jabas, guitar; Gordy Johnson, bass; Dave Schmalenberger, drums; Dave Hagedorn, Kurt Savela, Zach Miller, percussion; Steve Vecchi, vocal (