The Towson State University Jazz Ensemble: The Return of the Tiger
The third recording by the Towson State University Jazz Ensemble (which, for those who find such information useful, is in Maryland) arrived in mid–winter unclothed; that is to say, no booklet, no tray card, no liner notes, only the CD itself in a jewel box. What this means is that no personnel are listed, nor is there any information about the individual tracks such as composer, arranger, soloists or playing times. Fortunately, the music is (almost) intact (there is one sonic shock, but more about that in a moment). Two other general observations: first, the band is outstanding; second, there must have been more than one recording session, as over–all sound quality improves dramatically after the first two selections, on which ensemble passages are muddy and the venue seems more barn–like than studio. The songs on which the acoustics are less than adequate are the Burke / Van Heusen standard “It Could Happen to You” and Horace Silver’s “Nuttville” — each of which is, however, quite well–played. Coltrane’s “Naima,” which follows, is sung by the band’s female vocalist who’s not bad either, making the most of a splendid chart. “Better Days Ahead,” which showcases Towson’s talented pianist and bass guitarist, sounds like a Pat Metheny / Lyle Mays tune, albeit one with which I’m not familiar, while I believe the sunny, chorale–like “Decoupage” was written for the Stan Kenton Orchestra by Towson’s former music director, the noted pianist Hank Levy. As for the others, Mike Tomaro composed the ballad “Tears in Her Eyes” and we all know who wrote “Take the ‘A’ Train.” That leaves “His Dream,” “Chief’s Blues,” “Ven Zu Wailin’,” “Strayhorn” and “Porpoise Story,” none of whose authors is known to me. While the arrangers are also anonymous, whoever they are they’ve produced some first–rate charts, and every track is bright and swinging. Trombones and reeds are especially persuasive on “His Dream” while the drummer unloads some well–aimed incendiary bombs on the contrapuntally pleasing “Chief’s Blues.” The ensemble sparkles on “Strayhorn,” a charming tone poem that sounds like something Billy himself might have written. Fine trumpet solo, too. The spirit of Kenton resurfaces on “Ven Zu Wailin’,” which is akin to some of the quasi–Latin pieces Johnny Richards once wrote for Stan’s orchestra. Again, the trumpet player is a standout and everyone else pulls his weight. “Tears,” a warmhearted melody by former Army Blues saxophonist Tomaro, is a vehicle for flugelhorn and ensemble, while the easygoing samba “Porpoise Story” enwraps another crisp piano solo before stopping suddenly (on my copy, at least) smack dab in the middle of an emphatic tenor chorus. So it’s on to “‘A’ Train,” a listener–friendly finale to an otherwise admirable session — except for the shortcomings mentioned earlier. We probably received an early–issue demo copy, so the momentary distortion about two minutes into “His Dream” and the disconcerting stop on “Porpoise Story” should have been heard and made right. Let us hope so. Even with the sub–par sound early on, this is an impressive and easily endorsed third date by the maturing Towson State ensemble.
Track listing: It Could Happen to You; Nuttville; Naima; Better Days Ahead; Decoupage; His Dream; Chief’’s Blues; Strayhorn; Ven Zu Wailin’; Tears in Her Eyes; Porpoise Story; Take the “A” Train (68:13).
Contact: R.G. Diehl, director of Jazz bands, Towson State University (RGDiehl@aol.com).
Style: Big Band