Rick Holland–Evan Dobbins Little Big Band / Empire Jazz Orchestra / Heart of Carolina Jazz Orchestra
Of course, the presumptive listener needs to know not only what music is on offer but how well it is played. The answer, in this case, is quite well indeed. The EJO is secure as a unit, its soloists sharp and pleasing. They include trumpeters Peter Bellino, Steve Lambert and Terry Gordon; altos Pray and Jim Corigliano, tenors Kevin Barcomb and Brian Patneaude, trombonist Gary Barrow and guitarist Jack Fragomeni. Clarinetist Brett Wery and drummer Bob Halek sit in for Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa on "Sing, Sing, Sing." Halek is similarly impressive on "Wyrgly" and in fact throughout the concert, as are his colleagues in the rhythm section. For a concert performance, the sound is by and large satisfactory albeit a touch cramped; not enough, however, to impair the listening experience. The music more than makes up for that trivial shortcoming.
Heart of Carolina Jazz Orchestra
Even though it has been around for more than twenty years, the Heart of Carolina Jazz Orchestra is, to weigh the matter frankly, less than a household name, not even in its home base of Sanford, NC. More's the pity, as every moderate-sized city should be lucky enough to have an ensemble of this caliber residing within its precincts.
On Jazz Encounters which may be the orchestra's debut recording (no information about others could be found), the bill of fare runs the gamut from jazz and popular standards to a folk theme ("Danny Boy"), a spiritual ("Deep River") and jazz arrangements of well-known classical works by Brahms, Dvorak, Beethoven and Debussy (commissioned by the Heart of Carolina Jazz Society). Most of the charts were written by Paula Kelly Jr., a former staff arranger for a number of military bands including the formidable Airmen of Note, or the orchestra's music director, Gregg Gelb, who doubles (triples?) on alto sax. The exceptions are Count Basie / Harry James / Benny Goodman's venerable "Two O'Clock Jump," Henry Mancini's Oscar-winning "Days of Wine and Roses" (neatly arranged by Nat Pierce), Willie Maiden's "A Little Minor Booze" and Bill Holman's sunny "Theme and Variations No. 2." There are two original compositions, Gelb's "Hopscotch" and "I Cared for You" (based on the standard "I Should Care"). While none of the charts breaks new ground, each one is bright and engaging.
Soloists aren't listed, but surely that must be Gelb having his say on ten of the album's sixteen numbers including "Minor Booze," "Danny Boy," Dvorak's "Goin' Home," Debussy's "My Reverie," "Deep River" and "Hopscotch." Guitarist Fred Brush is featured on Kelly's lively arrangement of "Them There Eyes." Unnamed soloists (trombone, trumpet) are as capable as can be foreseen from a community-based orchestra. Although the sound is respectable, it lacks the perceptible clarity and separation that are the hallmark of more seasoned and well-equipped recording studios. Not enough, however, to lessen the average listener's enjoyment or appreciation. These are by and large Jazz Encounters of the pleasurable kind.
Jazz Conceptions Orchestra
First things first. The The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra isn't really an orchestra. Not even close. In point of fact, it's a nonet (tentet on one number). On the other hand, as nonets go, it's a very good one indeed, often coaxing a big band sound from two trumpets, three saxophones, a trombone and rhythm, thanks to resourceful charts by leader / trumpeter Alex Nguyen, alto saxophonist Alex LoRe and baritone Matt Zettlemoyer. Nguyen arranged the heart-rending "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," Miles Davis' picturesque "Flamenco Sketches" and Ben Webster's buoyant "Better Go," LoRe his brisk "Morning Walk" (showcasing Nguyen's eloquent flugelhorn), Bud Powell's bustling "Parisian Thoroughfare" (the session's only fade) and John Coltrane's oft-heard "Moment's Notice," Zettlemoyer his colorful "Changes" and Jimmy Heath's lyrical "Gemini." In their capable hands, each one sings and sparkles.