The Howard University Jazz Enemble has been recording once every year almost since its inception in 1975, invariably producing albums that are sharp and persuasive, and HUJE 2003
is certainly no exception. While the personnel changes from season to season, as it does in any university-level band, the one constant is director Fred Irby III, who founded the ensemble in 1975 and remains at the helm nearly thirty years onward. And as band’s proficiency remains exceptionally high from year to year, one must presume that Irby has something to do with that.
Unlike several of its previous endeavors, there’s no over-arching theme this year but the ensemble does pause in midstream to honor one of two recipients of the school’s 2003 Benny Golson Jazz Masters Award, tenor saxophonist Buck Hill, a D.C. legend who brightens his own composition, “Two Chord Molly.” Ten of the fourteen selections are performed by the Jazz Ensemble, three by the Down Beat award-winning a cappella vocal group Afro Blue, the other by the six-member HU Jazztet.
The ensemble opens with “It’s You or No One,” the first of three engaging charts by Alan Baylock, chief arranger for the U.S. Air Force’s premier Jazz ensemble, the Airmen of Note. Baylock also arranged Ellington’s “Cottontail” and Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You.” Michel Legrand’s luminous ballad “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” was arranged by Baylock’s predecessor, Mike Crotty, Jimmy Heath’s bluesy “Our Little Town” by the Navy Commodores’ Scott Silbert. Trombonist Mark Williams is featured on “Music,” trumpeter Marlon C. Winder on “Town,” as he is with the Jazztet on his enchanting composition, “Lone Wolf.” Lead alto Jerrell Hollis Whitaker is the lone soloist on Tommy Newsom’s arrangement of Louie Bellson’s “I Remember Duke,” while drummer Jonathan Laine has the stage to himself for an unaccompanied four-minute reiteration of Max Roach’s percussive tour de force, “The Drum Also Waltzes.” The closing number, a perky arrangement by Lorne Lee of Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” includes agile solos by guitarist Nicholas Lipkowski, drummer McClenty Hunter and bassist Eric Wheeler.
Afro Blue, formed in 2002 and directed by Connaitre Miller, is lithe and synchronous on its three numbers, with vocalists Nia Simmons and Egheosa Passion Igbinoba showcased on Andres Endenroth’s “Chili Con Carne,” Danielle Withers on the standard “How About You,” Kevin Owens on Kenny Durham’s “Blue Bossa” (lyric by Kirby Shaw).
The Jazz ensemble, as mentioned, is keen and resilient, even though not always well-served by the recording studio’s reverberant “concert hall” sound. And while there are no hair-raising soloists as in years past (alumni include Golson, Wallace Roney, Geri Allen and others), neither are there any clunkers, as everyone performs to the best of his ability. Another smooth and tasteful performance by one of academia’s longest-running class acts.