Apparently, the word “predictable” isn’t in Bob Washut’s vocabulary, as one never knows quite what to expect from his award–winning Jazz Band One at the University of Northern Iowa. Just Us, the ensemble’s eighth recording (by our count), is wide–ranging and adventurous, to say the least, scanning the landscape from standard to avant–garde, swing to contemporary, bolero to blazer. What matters most, of course, is how well the band performs, and as always, Washut has his young scholars well–prepared and eager for combat. Once they’ve overrun and brought to its knees Joey Sellers’ monstrous “Epic Pepper Queen” with its formidable harmonics and treacherous contrapuntal passages, there’s never a doubt that they’ll emerge triumphant, and the rest of the program, strenuous as it may appear on paper, is swallowed as effortlessly as the proverbial “piece of cake.” Washut arranged the next two numbers, “Honey Boy” (on which the band paves a solid roadway for Mike Cramer’s funky guitar) and Jerome Kern’s classic, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the first of two impressive features for tenor saxophonist Dustin Bear (the other is Ellington’s “Oclupaca”). The avant–garde is represented by alto saxophonist Todd Munnik’s vigorous workout for reeds, “Nervous Tic,” an ostinato–based, odd–meter work on which each of the saxophonists improvises freely; the blazer by Matt Catingub’s frenetic “High Altotude” with Munnik and Rick Stone dueling at close quarters; the bolero by Chico O’Farrill’s “Pianitis” (showcasing Steve Shanley at the keyboard). Everyone has fun on Ronnie Cuber’s light–hearted treatment of Charles Mingus’ “Jelly Roll” before tenor saxophonist Doug Johns, who played in Washut’s first UNI ensemble in 1981, returns to sit in admirably for Benny Golson on Benny’s engaging love letter, “Along Came Betty.” The remaining number is a note–for–note re–creation (including solos) of Ellington’s “Cottontail.” While such facsimiles may be useful as academic exercises, I can’t see why anyone would bother to record them. Aside from that minor complaint, Just Us is another feather in the UNI ensemble’s cap and highly recommended.
Track listing: Epic Pepper Queen; Honey Boy; Smoke Gets in Your Eyes; Cottontail; Nervous Tic; High Altotude; Pianitis; Oclupaca; Jelly Roll; Along Came Betty (52:57).