It takes only a few moments to realize that Glendale, California's Hoover High School isn’t home to your average garden-variety Jazz ensemble. “Epiphany,” the opening track on Hoover Jazz 2002,
is a dazzling two-minute disquisition by bass guitarist Nick Klingenberg, followed by Regina Carter’s percussive “Mandingo St.” (featuring cellist Rachel Arnold, horn player Jason Thoms, vocalist Arlin Vartanian and an insisent Caribbean beat) and the Gypsy Kings’ rhythmic showpiece, “Vamos a Bailar,” with star turns for flute, trumpet, drums, keyboard, percussion and three guitars. The rest of the program is no less atypical, consisting of songs by Celia Cruz, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, two by the group No Doubt, one “standard” (the Andrews Sisters hit, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen”), a visionary “student original” (no composer listed) aptly named “Untimely,” and a couple of numbers by the six-member Down Beat Combo (Jason Goldman’s “Catch Me If You Can,” Jan Hammer’s “Red and Orange”) before closing with Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good.” In addition to the usual trumpets and saxophones (but no trombones), the Studio Jazz Orchestra / Contemporary Jass Band houses flute, clarinet, cello, bass, guitar, drums, percussion, keyboards (three of each), bassoon, French horn and five female vocalists who perform singly or as a group. Everything the orchestra plays rests on a Latin substructure, while the Down Beat Combo goes its own way, adopting a style that is rhythmically and harmonically advanced but probably won’t move the more conservative listener, as may the lovely French horn / guitar introduction to “Feels So Good,” which helps close the album on a definite high note. Clearly, director Craig Kupka has taken Hoover’s Jazz program in a singular direction, one that has paid dividends in the form of more national awards in Down Beat
magazine than another other comprehensive high school in the country (including three consecutive citations as best large ensemble).
The second of this two-CD set is devoted entirely to the the Down Beat Combo and its even smaller counterpart, the Almost Acoustic Jazz Quartet (the sextet without cellist Arnold and keyboardist Bryan Choi), and once again the design is mainly contemporary and markedly cutting-edge with the occasional nod to bop. Klingenberg’s “Epiphany,” Goldman’s “Catch Me If You Can” and Hammer’s “Red and Orange” are repeated (and this time we can be sure that the soloist on “Epiphany” is Klingenberg), and there are bop-era compositions by Monk (“Criss Cross”), Bird (“Donna Lee”) and Duke Jordan (“Jordu”) with more radical works by drummer David Ettedgui (“Drum ’n Bass,” a “patriotic” tour de force for its composer) and Tribal Tech (“Stella”). As high-school players go these earnest young students are top-drawer, and if the music they’ve chosen isn’t always our cup of schnapps, it may very well be yours.