It may come as a surprise, but the Columbus Jazz Orchestra has more season ticket holders that the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and it plays a series of concerts to packed houses every year. All this even in a town like Columbus, Ohio, which is not exactly known as a jazz mecca.
What is the secret of their success? Two things. First, artistic director Byron Stripling is dedicated to putting on an entertaining show instead of treating jazz as an artifact. Second, Stripling also pulls songs from the entire history of jazz to build the band's book, and thus fans are just as likely to hear a Wayne Shorter tune as they are "One O'Clock Jump (and you won't find big band renditions of current pop hits either). Oh yeah, and the band is stocked with excellent musicians, including Stripling himself.
The Colors of Jazz is a perfect example of what the band can do when it is hitting on all cylinders. Award winning producer Joel Moss eschewed the studio for recording purposes and captured the CJO in the warm confines of the Southern Theater, which the band calls home. This approach has brought out the live spark that is missing from many jazz recordings when live bands go into the studio only to lose the energy and excitement of the stage. Moss has done a terrific job capturing the band with all its crackle and exuberance.
Of the tunes selected for the recording, only two can rightly be considered big band classics. The rest are drawn from the entire history of jazz and often draw upon different era as the bedrock for their sound. "Amazing Grace, for instance, hearkens back to the great Jimmy Smith/Stanley Turrentine recordings for Blue Note, while "I Found A New Baby" recalls the best of New Orleans jazz. Especially impressive is a chart for Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes, which captures the melancholia of the original while also adding beautiful textures behind.
The showpiece of the record is the three-part suite "The Colors of Jazz, the orchestra's first commissioned work which comes courtesy of John Clayton. It's a marvelous piece that, according to Clayton in the liner notes, is continually being shaping by the CJO through performances. Clayton knows how to use the orchestra to create music better than just about anyone else working today, and from the Ellington-like opening tone poem to the Mingus-like squall that comprises the third movement, Clayton and the CJO have crafted a wonderful big band composition that stacks up against the best of 2006.
Big bands may be hard to find these days, but the CJO soldiers on, undaunted by the odds and playing remarkable series of concerts for eager listeners. The Color of Jazz is an excellent representation of what the band is up to, and is easily one of the best big band records in a while. Jazz fans take heed: the big band isn't dead, it's alive and well in the Midwest.
Personnel: Byron Rooker, Michael Cox, Chad Eby, Pete Mills, Kris Keith: saxophones; Byron Stripling, Wes Orr, Bobby Everhart, Jim Powell, Dwight Adams: trumpets; Linda Landis, Ola Hanson, Jim Masters, Pat Lewis: trombones; Bob Breithaupt: drums; Mark Flugge: piano; Bobby Floyd: piano, Hammond B-3; Chris Berg: bass; Dwight Lenox and Byron Stripling: vocals.