Performing regularly in the Philadelphia area, the Temple University Jazz Ensemble, led by Terell Stafford, has just come out with its first album of six standards and two student-penned original charts. Not your typical college orchestra, the TUJE is a small seven-piece ensemble that plays with the energy of a full-size big band and the tightness of a small combo. The album derives its name from Stafford's studio number at the university's Boyer College of Music and Dance. The album's namesake, "Room 323," written by drummer Chris Beck, is a bebop number similar in style to a Thelonious Monk tune, with the saxophone as the centerpiece instrument.
Vocalist Dena Underwood, who appears on four tracks, accompanies the band in a prominent role. When I first heard her singing on the second number, "Just You, Just Me," her voice and singing style seemed somehow familiar. In searching my memory banks I had to reach back some 32 years to recall when I had last heard a voice like hers. Then I remembered the Chuck Mangione album Land of Make Believe with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and the singer, Esther Satterfield. Dena Underwood possesses the same unique and piercing voice that made Satterfield so wonderful to hear.
On the next number, "Here's That Rainy Day," the band changes the pace with a little soft and delicious music made memorably by Jon Katz's soothing sax solo. "With A Song In My Heart" is characterized by very little singing; a quick intro by Underwood is followed by an array of solos by the band. A nice intro by Luke O'Reilly on piano sets up another entrance by Underwood, who sings emotionally on "Never The Less." Student trumpeter Tim Thompson's "Blues For Biggs" sounds a lot like a jam session, with a fast-paced beat punctuated by a cool drum solo from Chris Beck. O'Reilly's piano and Underwood's voice collaborate on the very sexy, lyrical song "All Of Me." Sonny Rollins' "Airegen" is a Latin jazz groove that the band harmonizes with percussive persuation.
A delightful first album debut for the TUJE, Room 323 is a musical statement to be proud of. For a small and light band, the players create a convincing big band sound. Underwood has a stand-out style which, with some good fortune, can help her carve a niche in the music world. Congratulations to Terell Stafford for this fine effort. He should consider an encore performance andmaybe with the recognition forthcoming from this projecta larger room!
Personnel: Terell Stafford: director; Tim Thompson: trumpet; Jon Katz: alto saxophone; Wally
Bechtold: tenor saxophone; Greg Snyder: guitar; Luke O'Rielly:piano; Justin Carney: bass;
Chris Beck:drums; Dena Underwood: vocals.