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If Count Basie were alive today, he’d no doubt be leading the enthusiastic applause for Kendrick Oliver’s New Life Jazz Orchestra which punctuates the Basie-centered ensemble’s debut album, recorded in concert last September at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston. “One thing we’ve never been accused of,” says Oliver, “is being boring”and that they are not, zealously ripping into classics associated with Basie, Ellington, Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday, several luminous original compositions and a pair of time-honored spirituals (“Wade in the Water,” “Joshua Fit the Battle”).
Tuba player Oliver formed the NLJO in 1995 and has managed to hold it together in spite of the burgeoning reputations and busy schedules of several of its members, including trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and saxophonists Jimmy Greene and Miguel Zenon. “Eighty percent of the guys were there when we formed [the band],” says Oliver, “and just about everybody [who’s now there] has been around for three or four years.” The cohesion and esprit de corps are clear and impressive, as is the marvelous timekeeping of guest artist Christian McBride who sits in for the orchestra’s regular bassist, Mark Kelly, on nine of the album’s dozen tracks and crowns his superlative performance with an acrobatic solo on Milt Hinton’s swing-era tour de force, ”Pluckin’ the Bass.”
Like Basie, in whose likeness the band is modeled, Oliver employs a rhythm guitarist, Tyrone Chase, and like Basie, encourages everyone to play with as much ardor and intensity as he (or she) can muster. No one holds anything back, least of all vocalist Monica Lynkwho dazzles on Frank Foster’s “The Comeback,” Ellington’s “Imagine My Frustration” and the Holiday staple, “God Bless the Child.” Pelt, Greene and Zenon are among the standout soloists with other persuasive comments by McBride, tenors Jason Anderson and Walter Smith, trombonists Kari Harris and Danny Kirkhum, alto Julius Tolentino and pianist Mark Copeland. The charts, mostly by Oliver and Anderson, are excellent, while the newer compositions, Oliver’s “Kid from Nazareth,” Anderson’s “Another Day” and their co-written “Welcome to New Life” are among the album’s highlights, as are “Pluckin’ the Bass” and the spirituals, “Wade” and “Joshua” (the latter enhanced by Pelt’s soulful muted trumpet).
It is entirely appropriate that the NLJO should end the concert with Basie’s fiery “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” on which tenors Anderson, Greene and Smith take turns fanning the flames. This is wonderful music with a Basie point of view, and there’s far too little of that being performed these days as we approach the centenary of the Kid from Red Bank’s birth in August 2004.
Track Listing: Intro to New Life; Welcome to New Life; Inghin the Ooh / Moten Swing; Wade in the Water; The
Comeback; Another Day; Kid from Nazareth; Pluckin
Personnel: Kendrick Oliver, leader, tuba; Adam Rappa, Jeremy Pelt, Jon Boutin, Brent Irvine, trumpet; Miguel
Zenon, Julius Tolentino, alto sax; Jimmy Greene, Walter Smith, tenor sax; Jason Anderson, tenor,
baritone sax; Karl Harris, Danny Kirkhum, Max Siegal, trombone; Mark Copeland, piano; Tyrone
Chase, guitar; Christian McBride, Mark Kelly (2, 3, 6), bass; Charles Haynes, drums; Monica Lynk,