Kris Berg & the Metroplexity Big Band / Michael Treni Big Band / Millennium Jazz Orchestra
The Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra hails from Denver, CO, a Rocky Mountain metropolis that is home to a surprising number of blue-chip bands, the MJO among them. One of those ensembles, the H2 Big Band, is co-led by gentlemen whose surnames begin with the letter "H"trumpeter Al Hood and pianist Dave Hansenand here we have another, MJO co-founder / trumpeter Scott Handler who leads his section flawlessly and summons the specter of high-note monarch Maynard Ferguson on Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." The other co-founder, lead trombonist Kevin Buchanan, is superb on his feature, Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You." Speaking of high notes, the MJO's vocalist, Suzanne Morrison, ascends into the stratosphere on "Taki Rari," an aria once associated with the amazing Peruvian songbird Yma Sumac who was said to have a vocal range spanning more than four octaves.
A second trumpeter, Doug Barta, doubles as vocalist on the British favorite, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," and Joe Cocker's bromidic hymn to her, "You Are So Beautiful" (as a lyricist, Cocker, to put it charitably, ain't no Cole Porter, while Barta is several large steps removed from Sinatra, Tony Bennett or Matt Munro). There is one more vocal by Morrison who is suitably perky on "I Love Bein' Here with You." The rest of the album is instrumental, comprising three standards, "You Don't Know What Love Is," "Beauty and the Beast" and Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy" (the last a showcase for alto saxophonist Zack Cassell), Benny Carter's "Souvenir" and a trio of provocative originals by Eric Richards ("Fantasia on Kang Ding Love Song"), tenor saxophonist Ejric Bernhardt ("Sharks & Manatees") and music director Jim Mick ("Zen and the Art of Samba"). "Fantasia," based on Chinese folk music, sounds almost semi-classical at times (a mood enhanced by Cassell's debonair flute and alto). "Sharks & Manatees" is somewhat weighted down by Bernhardt's partisan rap (not a welcome sound to these ears; others may disagree), while "Zen" earns high marks for its Latin temper, airy charm and agile solos by Cassell (alto), trumpeter Dan Johnson and guitarist Serena Eads.
Richards arranged "You Don't Know What Love Is," which uncorks the session in an upbeat mode whose liveliness is sharpened by zestful solos from Johnson, pianist Gary Dempsey and alto Tyler Farr. The rhythm section (Dempsey, Eads, bassist Jason Malmberg, drummer Dan Aluisi) is in top form here, and is sturdy throughout. Dempsey and Bernhardt are the soloists on Gordon Goodwin's gently swinging arrangement of "Beauty and the Beast," Dempsey again on the easygoing "Souvenir." The MJO is superb, the music admirable, and Sharks & Manatees marks an impressive debut by another of the Rocky Mountain area's several outstanding jazz orchestras.
Howard University Jazz Ensemble
Ode to Life
Every year, almost like clockwork, director Fred Irby III ushers the Howard University Jazz Ensemble into a recording studio. And every year, after facing the music, the group emerges with an album that is an archetype of sharp and tasteful big-band jazz. 2011 was no exception, as the picturesque Ode to Life shines and swings from end to end, displaying the ensemble at its ardent and emphatic best in an engaging program of jazz standards, pop favorites and three impressive compositions by members of the orchestra.
You couldn't ask for a more tantalizing opener than Sonny Clark's "Blue Minor," a boppish flag-waver that breezes merrily along behind good-natured solos by trumpeter Donvonte McCoy, tenor saxophonist Elijah Balbed and pianist Samuel Prather, a trio that is heard from often as Irby wisely chooses to go with his strengths. Balbed is showcased on "Pure Imagination," the ballad "If Ever You're in My Arms Again" and Henry Mancini's "Two for the Road," solos with Prather and drummer Cedric Edmon on the pianist's composition, "On My Good Days," with guitarist Peter Muldoon on Muldoon's original, "Pledge to Micha," and with French hornist Ariel Shelton and guitarist Rick Peralta on Andrew Hill's "Mist Flower." Prather has Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beatty" to himself, is heard with an uncredited guitarist on Don Pullen's "Ode to Life" and with Balbed, Muldoon and bassist Eliot Seppa on Seppa's "Peace of Mind." McCoy is heard again with Balbed, Prather and Edmon on Lee Morgan's buoyant "Hocus Pocus."