I first heard the Pierce College Jazz Ensemble at the IAJE Conference in Long Beach, CA, in January 2001 and was quite impressed, enough so to ask director Norm Wallen to keep me in mind for reviews if the ensemble were to record any CDs. After sending a master of the band’s performance at the conference, Norm followed up with these two albums, the band’s first “official” recordings ( The Weekly Dance
came first), which show clearly why many observers consider the ensemble from Lakewood to be Washington state’s “best kept musical secret.” Clearly, that is, except for over–all sound quality, which is more cloudy than clear, muddying myriad ensemble passages, masking the rhythm section, squeezing vitality from the atmosphere and routinely sabotaging Nelda Milligan’s every effort to make the piano sound agreeable. Even more unnerving, my copy of Pierced Ears
arrived complete with audio glitches that rendered the opening track, Jim McNeely’s “Blue Note,” unlistenable. Sounded like some gremlin kept pulling the plug on the recording apparatus. There were a couple missteps on the second track, “Joy!,” after which the bugs left town for awhile, returning toward the end of “MacArthur Park” and making themselves at home on “Blues for Kenny” and “Just Friends.” The disc isn’t unplayable, only irksome enough to dampen one’s appreciation of what is otherwise an essentially admirable session. Apparently, many (perhaps all) of the ensemble’s members are part–time students at the community college who either play professionally or for fun in the Puget Sound area — at least, that is what is indicated in the liner notes. In any case, the PCJE earned top honors in the “open division” at last year’s Lionel Hampton and Reno Jazz Festivals, and once one gets past the subpar sound and technical flaws on these albums it’s not hard to understand why. The Weekly Dance
opens with a spirited reading of Bill Holman’s fast and furious “Daily Dance,” on which brass and reeds compete for the blue ribbon and the skirmish ends in a draw. The leisurely “Du Velours” is a showcase for lead trombonist Richard Lopez, Bret Zvacek’s high–powered arrangement of “Harlem Nocturne” another opportunity for brass and saxophones to bare their formidable chops, with the reedmen earning a close decision, as they do also on Tom Kubis’ Nestico–like “Rhythm Machine.” After a shaky start, Don Menza’s dynamic “Samba de Rollins” settles into a happy groove, and Stan Kenton’s lovely arrangement of “All the Things You Are” is nicely played by the ensemble. Next up is tenor saxophonist Mark Thome’s swinging parody, “All the Things You Ain’t,” on which the soloists are long–time friends and former high school classmates Bob Coyner (trumpet) and Keith Klawitter (alto sax). The Lennie Niehaus arrangement of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is another winner (how could it not be?), and the ’bone section turns in some excellent unison work on Roger Holmes’ “Burbank Sackbutt [trombone] Brigade.” The ensemble rings down the curtain with another exemplary Bill Holman chart, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and like most other bands manages to play it a shade too slowly. Soloists who caught our ear on Weekly Dance
included Lopez, Klawitter, Coyner, alto Matt Townsend and drummer Dale Drenner.
Too bad about the audio lapses on “Blue Note,” which opens Pierced Ears,
as it is one of McNeely’s more arresting compositions, one that has been unheard since it was recorded a number of years ago by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Gerry Niewood’s “Joy!” lives up to its name, with more snug blowing by the ensemble and bright solos from flugel Tracey Hooker and alto Kareem Kandi. Bill Holman wrote the driving “Front Runner” and arranged the ballad “Lover Man,” a showcase for the band’s impressive Russian–born tenor saxophonist, Alexey Nikolaev, whose extended a cappella
cadenza is arguably the album’s high point. ”Pontieo,” an irresistibly appealing Latin number, gives lead trumpeter Frank Minear a chance to draw a bead on the stratosphere, and his aim is unerring, as it is throughout each of these albums. Johnny Mandel’s “Emily,” arranged by Roger Holmes, summons Lopez center stage for a buoyant salute to one of his mentors, the great Carl Fontana. Wallen arranged Chick Corea’s funky “Chameleon,” the Monkish “I Remember Sarah” and the Beatles’ chestnut, “MacArthur Park,” on which Minear mirrors Maynard Ferguson, the reeds cruise through a mind–bending soli section and lead trombonist Peter Klinzman fashions a persuasive statement of his own (while the aforementioned glitches reappear near the end of the track). The last two numbers, Dennis Mackrel’s “Blues for Kenny” and Rob McConnell’s sparkling arrangement of “Just Friends,” are so defective on my copy of the album that the less said about them the better. Notable soloists on this go–round include Lopez, Drenner, Klinzman, Hooker, Nikolaev, Coyner, altos Matt Townsend and Kareem Kandi, tenor Cliff Colon and bassist Chuck Kistler.
Much more could be written but two observations may suffice: (1) Wallen has put together an admirable ensemble out in Lakewood, and (2) neither of these subpar albums offers a credible picture of its prowess.
Contact: Pierce College Jazz Ensemble, 9401 Farwest Drive SW, Lakewood, WA 98498–1999. Phone 360–866–9014; e–mail firstname.lastname@example.org