Darmstadter Big Band / Alon Yavnai–NDR Big Band / Red Bank Jazz Orchestra
Germany not only boasts a number of splendid college-level jazz ensembles, it also has youth orchestras, the best-known of which is the Bundesjazzorchester, or BuJazzO. Groups such as Landes Jugend Bayern are a step or two removed from BuJazzO; for the sake of comparison, think of the University of North Texas' flagship ensembles, the One O'Clock or Two O'Clock Lab Bands. Landes Jugend is basically at that level, which is more or less as proficient as young jazz orchestras can be. Some of the musicians in the various Landes Jugend ensembles will eventually audition for and perhaps be accepted as members of BuJazzO, whose upper age limit is twenty-five. Baritone saxophonist Florian Leuschner and trombonist Lukas Jochner, who appear on this recording from 2010, already are members of BuJazzO, while Martin Seiler, who is featured on his own composition "I Wish You All the Luck in the World," is as gifted as any young tenor saxophonist in Germany or anywhere else.
Seiler also wrote the swift and colorful "Dimwit," on which he solos with soprano saxophonist Daniel Klingl and vibraphonist Felix Prihoda, and "Abscheid," a virile anthem that encompasses astute solos by tenor Sebastian Wehle and drummer Silvan Strauss. Leuschner solos ardently with flugel Johannes Stange and pianist Tom Berkmann on Thad Jones' "Three and One," and is out front by himself on another theme by Jones, "Us." There are four vocals by Lydia Schiller (who has since teamed with bandmates Leuschner and pianist Sevi Krieger to form the trio Lucid). "Waldemar" is sung in German, "Quen" in an inscrutable tongue, Van Morrison's "Moondance" and the Billy Preston ballad "You Are So Beautiful" in English. Leuschner appends a feral contra-bass clarinet solo on "Quen," while Jochner, Wehle and pianist Stephan Plecher dig in their spurs on the irrepressible "Waldemar" (on which Schiller seems most at ease).
There is one conspicuous departure from the straight and narrow, on Klingl's innovative "Modalitat," but even here the anomaly is short-lived (well under two minutes), as Jochner and flugel Andreas Schnell deliver plain-spoken solos while the ensemble settles into a more compliant groove. The ensemble is exemplary, the soloists enlivened from start to finish. In other words, an impressive performance by one of Germany's outstanding young jazz orchestras.
Eastern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble
Three O'Clock Downbeat
While perhaps not as well known as some of its contemporaries, the Eastern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble has earned its share of honors and awards, from DownBeat magazine and at various intercollegiate jazz festivals. As Three O'Clock Downbeat, recorded in 2008-09, clearly shows, the accolades have not been misdirected. Sam Fagaly's intrepid ensemble swings hard, plays superbly as a unit, and betrays no uneasiness when asked to come to grips with formidable charts by the likes of Bill Holman, Thad Jones, Kim Richmond, Mark Taylor and others.
Eight of the album's eleven numbers, which, Fagaly writes, "represent the broad range of big band jazz performed by the EIU Jazz Ensemble," were set down in a studio, the rest in concert. Trombonist Allan Horney, the university's former director of Jazz Studies, is featured on one of the concert themes, Jones' evocative arrangement of the Gus Kahn / Walter Donaldson standard "Makin' Whoopee." Dave Holland's "The Balance" (arranged by Randall Reyman) and Lars Halle's "Sole Stains" were also taped live. Soprano Joshua Marcus and pianist Olivier David solo on "Balance," David, Marcus, trumpeter Garrett Schmidt and drummer Joe Burress on "Stains."
The ensemble comes out swinging on Richmond's assertive "Big Mama Louise" (enterprising solos by trumpeter Nick Grill and tenor Tony Wong) and has fun with Holman's clever arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's well-traveled "Take the 'A' Train." Marcus (alto) is showcased on Duke Ellington's plaintive "Star-Crossed Lovers," which precedes Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti," Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," "Sole Stains" and "Makin' Whoopee." The ensemble wraps things up with Taylor's robust treatment of Bronislau Kaper's "Invitation," John Coltrane's "Naima" (wonderfully scored by Marcus, especially for the sax section) and a second Holman chart, his contemporary take on W.C. Handy's venerable "St. Louis Blues." Grill and Marcus solo on "Invitation" and "Naima," Schmidt and David on "Blues."