Before appraising the music, a word about the concept — and what a wonderful one it is, a group of young Jazz musicians coming together to nurture their skills as composers and explore their ever–widening musical capabilities. The NJCO, formed in 1996 by trumpeter David Weiss, provides the pathway over which these aspiring writers are able to move toward their goal, and First Steps into Reality (an entry in Fresh Sound’s admirable “new talent” series) represents their first recorded excursion along that thoroughfare. Although these are merely first steps, no one stumbles; these (comparatively) unseasoned essayists have plenty to say, and the talent to express clearly their singular point of view. And even if they didn’t, the NJCO would still be a marvelous idea. Turning to the music, the program consists of three compositions by pianist Xavier Davis, two by alto saxophonist Myron Walden, one each by Weiss and bassist Dwayne Burno and Weiss’s arrangement of Freddie Hubbard’s “D Minor Mint.” The boppish opener, Davis’s “First Steps,” sounds like something Gerry Mulligan might have written for the groundbreaking Birth of the Cool sessions or his concert Jazz ensemble. Walden, Weiss and Davis quickly find the groove and deliver crackling solos. The Mulligan influence resurfaces on Davis’s restful ballad “When the Spirit Hits,” while his third composition, “Liberation,” is a free–wheeling swinger that would fit snugly in the Jazz Messengers book (and includes another rambunctious solo by Davis and Nasheet Waits’ high–powered Art Blakey impersonation). Walden’s works — “I’ll Always Love You,” “Untitled in Ab Minor” — are more introspective but no less engaging, while Weiss’s “Tribute to the Elders” is a fleet–footed flag–waver that sets the stage for Burno’s sensuous ballad, “I’m a Comin’ on Home.” “Elders” includes a rapid–fire Brignola–like solo by baritone James Farnsworth, to whom the album is dedicated. Farnsworth, “the calm, quiet force behind the band,” was only 33 years old when he died, less than a year after taking part in the first of two sessions that encompass the album. Farnsworth was replaced on the second date by Dave Reikenberg, with tenor Jimmy Greene sitting in for Greg Tardy. Farnsworth has another first–rate solo on “Comin’ Home.” Hubbard’s bop–centered tune, “D Minor Mint,” was included, says Weiss, “for some perspective.” Perhaps to show these young lions (most if not all of whom are in their 20s) that there’s always room for further growth. Here as elsewhere, the octet plays with awareness and cohesion. “We’re musicians, and we all have pretty big egos,” says Weiss, “but a lot of the fun of this is working collaboratively. . . .The music really benefits that way.” Those benefits are readily apparent on First Steps, steps that are assuredly leading these enterprising young musicians along the road to success. Like the month of June in the musical Carousel, their talent is bustin’ out all over.
Track listing: First Steps into Reality; I’ll Always Love You*; Tribute to the Elders; I’m a Comin’ on Home; D Minor Mint*; When the Spirit Hits*; Untitled in Ab Minor; Liberation (59:12).