Another year, another strenuous final exam for the University of North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band. What’s the grade? Let’s see . . . well (this is becoming rather monotonous), after adding up the score, it appears to be an unequivocal A-plus. In other words, the One O’Clock Band, now more than half a century old, continues to play an error-free game, as it has for most of those years.
Director Neil Slater, never one to tone down a test, hurls the students into deep water without hesitation, virtually daring them to sink or swim as he says take “That!” And take it they do, easily outflanking Slater’s esoteric opening gambit and splashing eagerly on to problem No. 2, baritone saxophonist Aaron Lington’s shadowy “Black Widow.” No missteps there, nor are there any on pianist Neil Shah’s sermonesque “Horizon,” saxophonist Tyler Summers’ light-hearted “Changing Spaces,” guitarist Kevin Brunkhorst’s gregarious swinger, “If Steve McQueen Were Here,” or Lington’s shimmering ballad, “Translucence.” If there were any lapses to that point they’d have only themselves to blame, as each of those numbers was composed by a member of the ensemble.
Moving to less familiar territory, the band crosses swords with Stephen Smith’s breezy “Paradigm Shift,” Joel Fountain’s picturesque “Nature vs. Nurture” and Stephen Anderson’s aggressive “Rhyth Migot.” Again, no sweat — more akin to a leisurely stroll in the park than a grueling marathon race, thanks to the ensemble’s razor-keen brass and reeds and stalwart rhythm section ( Shah, Brunkhorst, bassist Matt Wigton and drummer Stockton Helbing).
The soloists are no less impressive. They include Helbing, tenor Clay Pritchard and trumpeter Jay Jennings (“That”), Lington and trombonist David Winslow (“Black Widow”), Wigton and alto Summers (“Horizon”), Summers (soprano) and Shah (“Spaces”), Brunkhorst, Helbing and tenor Tom Luer (“Steve McQueen”), Shah and Luer (“Translucence”), Pritchard and Luer (“Paradigm”), Shah, flugel Ken Edwards and alto Stephen Clothier (“Nature vs. Nurture”), Edwards (trumpet), Pritchard, Wigton and Helbing (“Rhyth Migot”).
While I wouldn’t go quite as far as alumnus “Bones” Malone who declares in the liner notes that UNT’s One O’Clock Band is “better than any professional band in existence today,” it is nonetheless a splendid ensemble with no apparent weaknesses, and Lab 2003 reinforces its stature as one of the country’s preeminent college-level big bands.
Personnel: Neil Slater, director; Tyler Summers, Stephen Clothier, Clay Pritchard, Tom Luer, Aaron Lington, reeds; Dave Anderson, Zach Heffley, Ken McGill, Jay Jennings, Ken Edwards, trumpet; Jeff Valentine, David Winslow, Adam Jensen, trombone; Bryan English, Dan West, bass trombone; Neil Shah, piano; Kevin Brunkhorst, guitar; Matt Wigton, bass; Stockton Helbing, drums.