Yes, big–band Jazz lives, even Down Under in faraway Whangarei, New Zealand, where the Northern Jazz Society’s Wards Music Big Band reprises classic songs from the Swing Era and beyond. The band members, all of whom are presumably part–time musicians, range in age from 14 to 70 (some members of the Whangarei Youth Concert Band who show promise are given an opportunity to play with the senior ensemble, which was formed in 1991). Although no one would confuse Wards with a professional band (it’s about on a par with junior high or entry–level high–school ensembles here in the States), everyone gives the music his (or her) best shot, and one can’t ask for more than that. And any group that helps keep the big–band spirit alive anywhere in this musically deteriorating world deserves applause for that alone. On Unhooked, the material is largely familiar, the charts simple, tempos moderate, solos brief and rudimentary, enthusiasm high. The vocalists are Brandon and Anthea Hawkins, who could be husband and wife, brother and sister or perhaps cousins. Both are heard on Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and the lovely ballad “Somewhere Out There,” Anthea on “Imagination,” Brandon on “Cabaret” and “My Funny Valentine” (on which he unwisely alters Lorenz Hart’s flawless lyric to read “My Pretty Valentine”). As for the ensemble, it lays bare numerous rough edges, which music director Jim McMullen, an experienced conductor who arrived recently from Australia, is undoubtedly working to soften. And soften he may, but that’s not the point; what is important is that the Wards Music Big Band is keeping the faith and continuing to play the kind of music that brightens one’s spirit, refreshes the soul and binds together hearts and minds, no matter where in the world it comes from. Another round of applause, please.
Track Listing: My Girl Sal; Basie Straight Ahead; Four Brothers; Somewhere Out There; Blues to Do; Imagination; Birdland; Jersey Bounce; I
Personnel: Jim McMullen, music director; Stephen Thorne, Ashley Pou, Ruby Mitchell, alto sax; Jim Thorne, Beth McMullen, tenor sax; Lee Jones, baritone sax; Trevor Tilbury, clarinet; John Knox, John Cook, Terry Costello, David Neil, trumpet; Dennis Lee, David Jones, Andrew Thorne, Matthew Hermon, trombone; Tim Williams, guitar; Roger McLean, piano; Jim Crawford, bass; Colin Toomer, drums; Brandon Hawkins, Anthea Hawkins, vocals.