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The second of these two discs, Among Friends, showcases the 1996 edition of director Jeff Tower’s award–winning Hemet High School Jazz Ensemble No. 1 (with a number of impressive guests soloists), while Limited Edition, recorded in 1996–97, encompasses five selections by the Jazz Ensemble, another by the school’s Jazz Combo and two each by the Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble. Tower must be an outstanding teacher, as Hemet has for years been recognized as housing one of the country’s leading high–school Jazz programs, and Ensemble No. 1 is at least as competent as any band we’ve heard at that level, and more so than most. The weakness, if one can call it that, is that the soloists are relatively unschooled (no pun intended); one would hardly expect players in that age group to have mastered conclusively the art of improvisation. But if the students are over–awed by the towering presence of Lanny Morgan, Bobby Shew, Bill Watrous and the other guest artists on Among Friends, that perspective is well–hidden by their steadfast resolve and ever–confident persona (dig the arduous trombone soli on Neal Finn’s tricky “ReBop Trane”). Several of the guests shine on that one too — Berg, Watrous, Summers and especially Morgan, who must have swung his way out of the womb — as well as the ensemble’s excellent drummer, Sean Daniel. Lead alto Jessica Arellano is splendid on “Thinking of You,” as is guest flugel Jim Linahon. Arellano sparkles as well on Frank Mantooth’s forceful “Ballad for a Rough Year.” Roger Myers’ “Mutt & Jeff” deftly explores the wide tonal gulf between tuba and piccolo (well–delineated by Hemet’s Steve Meyer and Mia Christenson, respectfully, with guest Brandon Fields on tenor). Four Hemet alumni lend their talents to the enterprise — trombonist Tim Hoff, alto Dan Boulton and pianist Tim Swanson (Bill Holman’s “Dancing Nitely”) and trombonist Jeff Adams (“Matt Mattox”), while Tower takes a brief trombone solo on “Caught a Touch of Your Love” (on which Christenson returns, this time as vocalist). Shew is typically dazzling on Randy Aldcroft’s bracing “Breakfast Wine” before the guests step aside for the finale, (trumpeter) Ray Brown’s high–flying “Neverbird,” whose decorous solos are by band members Kris Kataoka (vibes), Dan Morrione (tenor) and Kevin Kaelin (trumpet). The ensemble is on its own on Limited Edition, cruising nicely through “Stella by Starlight” and originals by Matt Harris (“Latin Expresso”), Mantooth/Jim Martin (“Limited Edition”), Mike Tomaro (“Conspiracy Theory”) and David Springfield (“Rhyme,” which includes another admirable ’bone solo by director Tower). Again, Arellano emerges as the band’s strongest soloist, even though her alto is uncharacteristically shaky on “Limited Edition” (she’s far more convincing on Holman’s swinging arrangement of “Stella”). The discs provide a colorful snapshot of one of the country’s foremost high–school Jazz ensembles.
Track listing: Limited Edition — Latin Expresso; Limited Edition; Conspiracy Theory; Stella by Starlight; Rhyme; Zoo Blues; Proclamation & Symphonic Decree; Caccia & Chorale; Two Grainger Melodies (Six Dukes Went A–Fishin’, Early One Morning); Valdrest (55:30). Among Friends — Matt Mattox; Catch the ReBop Trane; Thinking of You; Mutt & Jeff; Dancing Nitely; Ballad for a Rough Year; Caught a Touch of Your Love; Breakfast Wine; Bad Dog; Neverbird (61:06).