In spite of this one's title, a new album by the University of Northern Iowa's Jazz Band One is hardly an unlikely event. This is the eleventh in my collection, and I may have overlooked one or two. Nine were directed by Bob Washut, the two most recent by his successor, Chris Merz, who, like Washut, relishes moving things around, marrying various styles and eras and generally keeping his students on their collective toes.
The multi-faceted concert (everything was recorded live) opens with Ellington's venerable "Rockin' in Rhythm" and includes compositions by Mary Lou Williams ("Messa-Stomp"), Vince Mendoza ("Bossa Antigua"), Chick Corea ("Tones for Joan's Bones"), and Peter Erskine ("Bulgaria," on which he sits in on drums), as well as Merz's elaborate but accessible "Unlikely Event," pianist Vladan Milenkovic's evocative "Balkanicus," the Disney favorite "Someday My Prince Will Come" (tastefully scored by Marty Robinson) and Washut's steamy arrangement of the Afro-Cuban swinger "Cubaneando" (complete with group vocal by the band).
The highlights are many, with special applause for Erskine's remarkable timekeeping on the dynamic "Bulgaria," the spicy Middle Eastern flavors of "Balkanicus," the captivating rhythms of "Cubaneando" and "Prince," the charming tempo variations on "Tones for Joan's Bones," the scrupulous ensemble work on every number, and the faithful solo recreations on "Messa-Stomp" and "Rockin' in Rhythm." Speaking of soloists, soprano Nathaniel Gao is a standout on "Bulgaria," "Event," and "Joan's Bones," and there are cogent statements elsewhere by Milenkovic, trumpeter Caleb Shreves, tenor Jeff Guntren, baritone Austin Zaletel, trombonist Joel Nagel, and three other guests: guitarist Travis Stevick, violinist Peter Llyich and vibraphonist Dave Hagedorn. Drummer Tom Giampietro's robust introduction to "Balkanicus" is another pinnacle.
We are indeed fortunate to have such a large number of impressive college-level jazz ensembles here in the States, and UNI is assuredly among the best of them. As noted, I have ten earlier albums by Jazz Band One in my library, and The Unlikely Event is another keeper that has earned a suitable place on the shelf beside them.
Track Listing: Rockin' in Rhythm; The Unlikely Event; Someday My Prince Will Come; Cubaneando; Balkanicus; Messa-Stomp; Bossa Antigua; Bulgaria; Tones for Joan's Bones (73:36).
Personnel: Chris Merz, director; Nathaniel Gao, alto, soprano, tenor sax, clarinet; Jennifer Nebraska, alto, soprano sax, flute; Jeff Guntgren, tenor, soprano sax, clarinet; Kyle Novak, tenor, soprano sax, flute, clarinet; Austin Zaletel, baritone, soprano, alto sax, bass clarinet; Brandon Lewis, Caleb Shreves, Christian Anderson, Phil Hamilton, Chris Arnold, trumpet, flugelhorn; Anthony Williams, Joel Nagel, Kevin Hakes, Luke Pingel, trombone; Vladan Milenkivic, piano; Danny Oline, bass; Tom Giampietro, drums, dumber, concert bass drum. Guest artist -- Peter Erskine (8), drums. Additional personnel -- Ed East (UNI '84), congas; Travis Stevick, guitar; Peter Llyich, violin; Dave Hagedorn, vibraphone.