Buddy Rich: In a Zone of His Own
Even within the most well-run and successful groups change is inevitable, and so it has been for Great Britain's foremost group of young prodigies, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, still going strong after more than forty-five years of memorable music-making. Bill Ashton, who founded the orchestra in 1965, has stepped aside as music director, succeeded by trumpeter / composer Mark Armstrong who came up through the ranks and is now a professor at the Royal College of Music in London. The Change is NYJO's first CD under Armstrong's direction, and whatever change it may represent is, to these ears, all to the good. In other words, the time-honored tradition of excellence continues.
Yes, there are a few departures from the beaten path: Tim Garland's fusion pieces, "Dark Before Dawn Before Dark" and "Agro Alegria," pianist Nikki Iles' temperate, chorale-like "Hush," baritone saxophonist Chris Whiter's "The Change" but this is for the most part straight-from-the-hip big-band jazz, admirably performed by musicians who have no business playing so well at such a young age. That is to say, typical NYJO. Alumnus Callum Au arranged Juan Tizol's well-traveled "Caravan," Armstrong Monk's "'Round Midnight" (on which he adds his seductive flugel to Garland's tenor) and the Gershwin brothers' "Lady Be Good." There are two vocals, on "Summer Sundays" and "Feeling Good," by Emma Smith, the latest in what seems an unbroken line of first-rate band singers who've made their mark with NYJO. Completing the program are Tom Stone's smooth and restful "Return Flight" and Julian Joseph's lyrically enchanting "Barbara."
Guest Mark Mondesir is the drummer on "Dawn Before Dark" and "Agro Alegria," the first of which was composed, Garland writes, with the late great Chris Dagley, arguably the finest drummer NYJO ever had, in mind. While Mondesir is splendid, NYJO has a pretty fair drummer of its own in Scott Chapman, an appraisal that is especially borne out on "Caravan," "The Change," "Return Flight" and "Lady Be Good," wherein he drives the ensemble with adeptness and enthusiasm. One conspicuous misstep, uncommon for an album by NYJO, is the failure to include the names of the orchestra's soloists, who are, as always, quite good. Yes, I could have overlooked the names but have searched everywhere and haven't found them yet. A wee blemish, it should be noted, on an otherwise exemplary album by an orchestra that declines to rest on its laurels but instead keeps getting better while exploring new avenues of musical artistry and growth.
Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra
Family Suite for Large Ensemble
Canadian composer / saxophonist Kirk MacDonald's Family Suite first appeared on CD in 2009 as a thematically connected medley for quartet (romhog 116). That might have been the end of its save for the fact that MacDonald and others who heard the various sections started thinking that more could be done, such as, for example, broadening the initial concept by transforming what had been conceived of as a small-group endeavor into something grander, transplanting its themes to a big-band framework and making it a Family Suite for Large Ensemble. To carry out the daunting assignment, MacDonald called on veteran trombonist Terry Promane, an associate professor in the Jazz Studies department at the University of Toronto, who set to work revising and expanding MacDonald's original design to produce Family Suite, Version 2.0, which is essentially what is heard on this superlative album, recorded in January 2012 at Humber College in Toronto.