The Winthrop University Jazz Ensemble, based in Rock Hill, South Carolina, shares its first–ever recording with the school’s Symphonic Band. I’d heard the Jazz Ensemble, under director Phil Thompson, at last year’s UNC–Charlotte Jazz Festival and was duly impressed. I wish I could say that I was as impressed by the album, but to be honest, it’s so poorly recorded that the band’s proficiency is invariably subverted by the dismal sound quality. That’s a shame, because from what one can hear through the haze the ensemble seems to be in excellent form, perhaps even as striking as it was at last year’s event. The program is certainly varied and interesting, with Henry Mancini’s “Cheers,” Frank Mantooth’s “Lauralisa,” the lovely “Blackberry Winter” by Alec Wilder and North Carolina’s own Loonis McGlohon, Billy May’s arrangement of the standard “That Old Black Magic,” the Stan Kenton–style “I See Voices” by Bret and Melinda Zvacek, and last but not least, the tune that so impressed me at the UNCC festival, “Samba Dees Godda Do It,” by one of the West Coast’s leading composer / arrangers, Tom Kubis. Thompson seems to have assembled a talented group with a number resourceful soloists — alto / soprano saxophonist Letron Brantley, tenor Antron Rearden, trumpeters Stephen Cutchins (who also plays lead) and Jocquin Fuller, guitarist Nathan Stewart, pianist Mark Catoe, bassist Ethan Moore and drummer Adam Snow. A word more about the sound, which is akin to a pre–LP 78rpm record or perhaps a radio air check without the surface noise or static — I didn’t know it was still possible to produce such low–grade, boxy–sounding recordings in these days of digital technology, but I must have been wrong, for here’s the proof. Incidentally, from an aural standpoint the four selections by the Symphonic Band are only marginally better. But even though the WU Jazz Ensemble’s coming out party is rather disappointing, owing entirely to the substandard recording techniques, I’m not yet ready to throw in the towel. My feeling is that Thompson and the ensemble will iron out the bugs and design a much more satisfactory package the second time around. I’m sorry I can’t endorse this first outing, as the band itself is quite good.
Track listing: Finale from Shostakovich Symphony No. 5; Deutsche Art Marsch; Toccata Marziale; Symphonic Songs for Band (Serenade / Spiritual / Celebration); Cheers; Lauralisa; Samba Dees Gotta Do It; Blackberry Winter; That Old Black Magic; I See Voices (61:49).