As the San Diego-based Jazz Project Big Band has chosen to devote an entire album to the music of Ken Downing, one might reasonably ask who Ken Downing is. (I know I did.) The short answer is that Downing, who died of cancer in 1983 at age 55, was an Oklahoman, born and educated in Tulsa, whose life was devoted to music in general and big band jazz in particular. A tenor saxophonist, he organized, directed and performed with the Tulsa Concert Jazz Band (TCJB), which presented free concerts in that area for some thirty years. In 1999, Ken Downing was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.
Even so, Downing's music would presumably have been lost and forgotten were it not for the efforts of a longtime friend, bassist John Hurst, Ken's widow Carolyn, and others who gathered together five of his splendid compositions and five more arrangements and recorded them a year ago to help keep the memory alive. For that, we owe them a debt of gratitude, as music this refreshing deserves to be heard and appreciated over and over again. Downing, as it turns out, was an excellent writer whose breezy charts inspire memories of Al Cohn, Gerry Mulligan, the underappreciated Raul Romero and early Bill Holman. Even though most of them were written thirty to forty years ago, Hurst writes, "they sound like the ink is still wet," and that's a pretty apt description.
Downing's charming originals are complemented by his clever arrangements of Coltrane's "Naima," Richard Carpenter's "Walkin,'" Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream," and the standards "Thanks for the Memories" and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most." The Jazz Project ensemble brings out the best in each one, playing with notable warmth and intelligence. The sections are tight and well-disciplined, and the JPBB boasts a number of respectable soloists. There are likable features for tenors Dick McGuane ("Spring") and David Castel de Oro ("Naima"), baritone Kent Dugan ("Memories") and trumpeter Bruce Cameron ("So Many Times"). Others making their mark include pianist Chuck Gardner, trumpeter Dave Greene, saxophonist Manzo Hill, trombonist Gary Bucher and guitarist Bob Boss.
According to Hurst, Downing "looked like Abe Lincoln, talked like Gomer Pyle and played sax like Zoot Sims." That's quite a combination. I wish I'd known him, but that wasn't possible. Hearing his music, however, is perhaps the next best thing. Hurst and the Jazz Project Big Band deserve a round of applause for bringing some it back to life and preserving it on disc, at least for a while. This was obviously a labor of love, and such endeavors usually bear the sweetest fruit. This one is quite tasty indeed.
Personnel: Michael Smith: director; Marty Conley, Bruce Cameron, Joe Luna, Tim Jameson, Mark
Hammond, Dave Greene: trumpet; Dick McGuane, Manzo Hill, David Castel de Oro, Peter
Arcidiacono, Kent Dugan: reeds; Gary Bucher, Jon Klokow, Greg Sorcsek, Mickey Sakakeeny,
Harrison Kirk: trombone; Chuck Gardner: piano; Bob Boss: guitar; John Hurst: bass; Don
Kuhli: drums; Dave Page, Eduardo Sabogal: percussion.