The Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble: We Came to Swing! (2003)
This is the third album in a row by the Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble that includes the words “swing” or “swingin’” in its title. I’m beginning to suspect that director Ronald Carter and his apprentices are trying to tell us something.
In this case, the announcement is directed toward its audience, as We Came to Swing! was recorded during concerts two summers ago in Peoria and Sandwich, IL; Chesterfield, MO, and on the NIU campus in DeKalb. And it means exactly what it says, as the ensemble swings freely in any framework, from Sonny Rollins to Jimmy Heath, Bill Holman to Ellington / Strayhorn, and at every other bend in the road.
Pianist Dan Nimmer, tenor Doug Stone and alto Diron Holloway share center stage on Rollins’ meteoric “Airegin,” which gets the album off to a rollicking start. Tenor solos can’t get much better than Stone’s, I thought until I heard Mike Salter’s adrenalizing performance on Heath’s “Voice of the Saxophone.” Moments later, Stone returned to knock me out again on Melton Mustafa’s sunny West Indian-spiced romp, “Bridging the Gap.” Salter is splendid on guitarist Jeremy Bieber’s boppish “Uncertainty,” Stone likewise on Ellington’s “Cottontail.” I guess we’ll have to call it a draw.
Holloway’s no slouch either, as he shows on “Airegin,” Ellington’s venerable “Black and Tan Fantasy” (opening his solo with a paraphrase of Bird) and Strayhorn’s “Lucky So & So,” the first of two amiable vocals by Nicholas Brooks, who’s also heard on the standard “Darn That Dream.” Nimmer, a very bad (meaning good) pianist, is spellbinding on “Dream,” “Airegin,” “Voice of the Saxophone,” “Cottontail” and Holman’s groovy “Told You So” and trombonist Mike McMann inserts cogent remarks on “Fantasy,” “Gap” and “Told You So.” Bieber, trumpeter Danny Campbell and baritone Tony Kidonakis add solos on “Fantasy,” Bieber and Campbell on “Uncertainty,” Campbell and drummer Alan Knudson on “Cottontail,” lead trumpet Mark Roller on “Lucky So & So.”
Every big band needs a blue-chip drummer, and NIU is blessed with not one but two in Knudson and Doug Bratt (there’s no mention of who’s playing on what number, but each one is so sharp it doesn’t really matter). With Nimmer, Bieber and bassist Alex Austin supervising the rhythm there are no weaknesses in that sector, nor are there any lapses among the brass and reeds. In fact, if there are any chinks in the armor I’ve yet to uncover them. NIU’s award-winning bands have long been ranked among the country’s leading college-level Jazz ensembles, and there’s a plausible reason for that they always come to swing.
Track Listing: Airegin; Black and Tan Fantasy; The Voice of the Saxophone; Bridging the Gap; Lucky So & So; Uncertainty; Darn That Dream; Told You So; Cottontail (54:06).
Personnel: Ronald Carter, director; Rich Moore, Diron Holloway, alto sax; Doug Stone, Mike Salter, tenor sax; Tony Kidonakis, baritone sax; Mark Roller, Danny Campbell, Wesley Jackson, Shawn Johnson, Chris Davis, trumpet; Mike McMann, Brad Folkens, Nic Hansen, Roosevelt Griffin, trombone; Dan Nimmer, piano; Jeremy Bieber, guitar; Alex Austin, bass; Doug Bratt, Alan Knudson, drums; Nicholas Brooks, vocals.
Record Label: NIUJE