While grabbing a quick bite to eat during the IAJE Conference in New Orleans in January, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman who was in line ahead of me. He introduced himself as Ira Wiggins, director of the Jazz ensemble at North Carolina Central University in Durham. After explaining briefly that I am a Jazz reviewer, I asked if the NCCU ensemble had recorded any CDs. “Yes, we have,” he replied, and handed me two of them. I suppose the moral is that good things sometimes happen when one opens his mouth and starts talking to strangers. The earlier of the discs, Central Visions,
was recorded in 1995; the other, Beyond the Horizon
(actually a two–CD set), consists for the most part of a studio session in April ’98 with half a dozen tracks taken from the band’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in ’96. Of the eleven tunes on Visions,
eight are by the Jazz ensemble and three (“Moanin’,” “Cottontail,” “Caravan”) by a vocal Jazz sextet. Singer Tia Exum is heard with the ensemble on Wiggins’ arrangement of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” while Wiggins himself is featured on tenor sax (“Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” “Cottontail”) and flute (“Moanin’”). The rest of the program is heavily Basie–influenced and predictable including “April in Paris,” a standard from the ’50s that gave the Count his greatest commercial success; well–traveled compositions by Neal Hefti (“Splanky”) and Jerome Richardson (“Groove Merchant”) and a lesser–known piece (“Oh”) by longtime Basie stalwart Ernie Wilkins, augmented by Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy” and Ray Brown’s “Lined with a Groove” (which ends the session on a high–spirited note). Recording quality is passable, a word that applies to the ensemble as well. At that time (’95), the NCCU band had a long way to go to measure up to the likes of North Texas, UNLV, Northern Iowa, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Miami University, North Florida, USC, Northern Arizona or any other of the country’s well–established Jazz Studies programs. By 1998, when much of Beyond the Horizon
was recorded, NCCU still wasn’t quite in that league; on the other hand, the rapid upswing achieved in only three years is audibly apparent, a consequence no doubt of the hard work done by Wiggins and assistant director Arnold George. Although its goal may yet be far–removed, the NCCU program is clearly advancing in the right direction. The ensemble is more sharply focused and emphatic, while soloists play with greater poise and assurance than those in ’95. Still second–tier but drawing ever closer to the top rungs of the ladder. As on Central Visions,
much of the music is tried–and–true and includes compositions by Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Gillespie, Mingus, Bobby Timmons, Horace Silver, Quincy Jones, George Shearing, Chick Corea and even Stevie Wonder alongside the standards “Mrs. Otis Regrets,” “More Than You Know” and “Dancing in the Dark” (the last two by the vocal Jazz ensemble), Rudolph Toombs’ “One Mint Julep” and a couple of originals by the band’s tenor soloist, Brian Horton (“Feels Like Southern Comfort,” “Deanna’s Melody”). Wiggins uncases his tenor on Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” and Wonder’s “Too High,” and solos on flute on “Deanna’s Melody” and Corea’s “Spain” (which also features George on piano and vocalist Charles Hyman). “Spain” is among the six selections taken from the Montreux concert (the others are “One Mint Julep”; Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” featuring vocalist Joy Harrell; Dizzy’s “Manteca,” Mingus’s “Boogie Stop Shuffle” and the vocal Jazz quintet’s rendition of “Too High”). Recording quality is not as impressive as the studio session in ’98, nor is the band, although it is a notch or so above Central Visions
of the year before. On the evidence presented here, one’s verdict must be that NCCU now boasts a fairly respectable Jazz ensemble — and it’s getting better.
Track listing: Central Visions — Oh; Sweet Georgia Brown; Goodbye Porkpie Hat; Splanky; Moanin’; Cottontail; Groove Merchant; April in Paris; Caravan; Doxy; Lined with a Groove (56:47). Beyond the Horizon — Disc 1: In a Mellow Tone; Dat Dere; Harlem Air Shaft; Isfahan; I Mean You; Mrs. Otis Regrets; Lullaby of Birdland; Jack the Bear; Feels Like Southern Comfort; Lush Life; That’s the Way of the World; Filthy McNasty (67:31). Disc 2: Robot Portrait; For BB; More Than You Know; Groovin’ High; Dancing in the Dark; Deanna’s Melody; One Mint Julep; It Don’t Mean a Thing; Manteca; Spain; Too High; Boogie Stop Shuffle (64:45).