Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band / Gerald Wilson Orchestra / Knoxville Jazz Orchestra
Another year, another splendid new recording by the Howard University Jazz Ensemble from the US capital. Moonwalk is the HUJE ensemble's thirty-fifth album in a series that stretches back to 1976. Each year the packaging becomes more elaborate and entertaining; this album is enclosed in an ebony cardboard jacket that houses not only the CD (within a second jacket) but a fifty-two page booklet that lists selections, soloists, personnel and arrangers before embarking on a wide range of topics from the university's Haitian Relief Committee and Benny Golson Jazz Master Awards to remembrances by Golson of Dr. Billy Taylor and McCoy Tyner, essays on the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and National Association for Music Education (MENC), a history of the Jazz Ensemble and its director, Dr. Fred Irby III, and an overview of the university's a cappella jazz vocal group, Afro Blue, and its director, Connaitre Miller.
So much for the trappings. What of the music? It's first-class, as always, even though the charts lean more heavily than usual on rock beats and electronics (swayed, no doubt, by the winds of change). The ensemble is securely on form on its eleven numbers, Afro Blue tasteful on the other (Taylor's impassioned "If You Really Are Concerned, Then Show It"). For solo help, Irby turns most often to alto saxophonist Brent Birckhead (an excellent choice) who is showcased on Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," Rod Temperton's "The Lady in My Life," Gene McFadden's "Wake Up Everybody" and (with pianist Amy Bormet) his own engaging foxtrot, "In My Leisure." Birckhead and Bormet lead a group of astute improvisers that includes trumpeter Donvonte McCoy, tenors Elijah Balbed and Isaiah Allen, bassist Karine Chapdelaine, drummer Carroll Dashiell III and trombonist Mark Mauldin (who is featured on Mike Crotty's shimmering arrangement of Monk's "'Round Midnight").
The most straight-ahead component on the bill of fare is Wayne Shorter's "This Is for Albert," deftly arranged by Rob Lussier, as was Lee Morgan's shuffling finale, "The Joker" (burnished solos courtesy of McCoy, Allen and bassist Eliot Seppa). Completing the program are Tyner's "Senor Carlos" and "Passion Dance," Charles Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song" and Mike Stern's fusion-centered "Tipatina's" (on which Birckhead and Dashiell are relatively even-tempered while Joshua Walker produces sounds only a guitar-lover could love). "Fight Song," introduced by Chapdelaine's unaccompanied bass, is less strident than usual, thanks to Brian Lewis' handsome chart. Lewis also arranged "Senor Carlos," Eugene Thorne "Passion Dance." Birckhead (flute), Chapdelaine and Walker solo on the former, Bormet, Balbed and Dashiell on the latter.
Expectations run high when appraising a new album by the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, and Irby's intrepid undergrads never disappoint. Moonwalk reaffirms a legacy of excellence that has remained unbroken through Irby's thirty-five years as director. Even though more "contemporary" than some of the ensemble's earlier albums, the end result is well-knit big-band jazz that satisfies on various levels.
Landes Jugend Jazz Orchester Hessen
A Tribute to Kenny Napper
Hessen's Landes Jugend Jazz Orchester, more popularly known as Kicks & Sticks, marks its twenty-fifth anniversary under founder / artistic director Wolfgang Diefenbach with this delightful tribute to British-born composer / arranger / bassist Kenny Napper, whose name, I blush to admit, was unknown to me. Napper arrived in Germany in the late 1960s, wrote for the Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra, moved to the Netherlands in the mid-1970s and since then has been composing and arranging for Dutch radio, the world-renowned Metropole Orchestra and the Skymasters, all the while teaching at the Hilversum Conservatory.
On Tribute, Landes Jugend is enhanced by a quartet of superb guest soloiststrombonist Jiggs Whigham, tenor saxophonist Ferdinand Povel, trumpeter Jan Wessels, vocalist Madeline Bellwho further brighten Napper's already luminous charts (he arranged everything on the album). Whigham, Povel and Wessels are showcased on three tracks each, Bell on five. Emulating the Metropole Orchestra's trademark, strings are added on five selections, although their presence is misread on the album's playlist. For the record, the string section amplifies the ensemble on tracks 3, 6, 9, 12, 14 and 15 (not 1, 2, 4, 8, 11, 12 and 15, as noted in the credits) but listeners will discover that for themselves soon enough.