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I hear a lot these days about how college students are being taught Jazz–by–the–numbers instead of how to think and react creatively in an extemporaneous situation, but I simply can’t buy into that line of reasoning, especially when listening to a group of young musicians as sharp and audacious as those in director Bob Lark’s Chicago–based DePaul University Jazz Ensemble who show clearly on Live at the Jazz Showcase that they’d give any big band, college or pro, a pulse–pounding run for its money. This is immediately apparent on Thad Jones’ “Little Pixie II,” an incessantly arduous chart that the ensemble masters easily, as it does every other number on this consistently persuasive session. Trumpeter Tom Harrell is a most welcome guest, but he solos only on “Little Pixie,” Jones’ staccato “Tiptoe” and his own luminous composition, “Sail Away.” Elsewhere the ensemble is on its own and none the worse for it, thanks to inspired blowing by everyone, both individually and in unison. The best big bands are built from the ground up, and Lark is indeed fortunate to number in the ensemble’s ranks a quartet of excellent supporting players in pianist Chris Frumkin, guitarist Jon Lundbom, drummer Greg Fundis and especially bassist Shawn Summer who stepped in to replace another superlative timekeeper, Sharay Reed, without (no pun intended) missing a beat. Summer is showcased on Kenny Burrell’s “Bass Face” and solos again on “Little Pixie” while Fundis is rewarded for his zealous backing throughout with solo space on “Tiptoe,” Donald Brown’s colorful “Episode from a Village Dance” and Tom Matta’s well–integrated “Components.” Frumkin and trombonist Matt McDonald are featured on another of Jones’ compositions, the ballad “To You,” and Frumkin cuts loose with tenor Bryan Murray and trumpeter Nate Walcott on Brown’s “I Used to Think She Was Quiet” and with Fundis, trumpeter Steve Thomas, alto Joe Irabagon and percusionist Vance Okrazewski on “Village Dance.” Besides playing bass, Summer wrote the zestful “J.R.,” which features Lundbom and tenor Scott Burns. Murray is the main man on the curtain–dropper, Billy Strayhorn’s buoyant “Upper Manhattan Medical Group,” nicely scored by Catherine Wheeler. It’s a shame that, unlike football, basketball and other sports, there are no “big–league” Jazz ensembles bidding to sign DePaul’s enterprising undergrads to long–term contracts, as most of them would, I’d wager, be drafted in the first round.
Contact:Bob Lark, DePaul University School of Music, 804 W. Belden Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614–3296. Phone 1–800–4–DePaul; web site, http://music.depaul.edu
Track Listing: Announcement / Little Pixie II; Bass Face; To You; I Used to Think She Was Quiet; Episode from a Village Dance; Tiptoe; Components; Sail Away; J.R.; Upper Manhattan Medical Group (70:22).
Personnel: Bob Lark, director; Tom Harrell (1, 6, 8), flugelhorn soloist; B.J. Levy, Marques Carroll, Ed Suh, Nate Walcott, Steve Thomas, trumpet, flugelhorn; Matt McDonald, Jason Wick, Nick Broste, trombone; Andrew Schwartz, bass trombone; Jon Irabagon, alto, soprano, tenor sax, flute; Jarrard Harris, alto sax; Scott Burns, Bryan Murray, tenor sax; Aaron Irwin, baritone sax; Chris Frumkin, piano; Jon Lundbom, guitar, percussion (5); Shawn Summer, bass; Greg Fundis, drums; Vance Okraszewski (5, 8), percussion; Ed Suh (5), congas.