It's hard to believe this is a school band, no matter what the level. Music director Rodger Fox, a seasoned trombonist who leads his own play-for-pay band, must be extremely pleased and proud of what his students at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington have accomplished, as their third album, Awright Awright, is superlative from start to finish. The first five numbers, in fact, offer a textbook lesson in how big-band jazz should feel and sound. The ensemble is solid, the rhythm section sharp, the soloists aggressive and engaging.
That's not to imply that things go downhill afterward. While the band continues its winning ways, the ebullient mood is tempered on Tracks 6-8 by the appearance of vocalist Deanne Krieg who clearly has talent but whose endowments are negligible on Leonard Feather's "Baby Get Lost," the shopworn standard "Teach Me Tonight" and Gene Krupa's "Boogie Blues." Perhaps that can be ascribed in part to the unimpressive choice of material. The band responds with a flourish, however, on Bronislau Kaper's memorable "Green Dolphin Street" and the funky finale, "Awright Awright," whose opening measures call to mind Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" and whose quirky character is underscored by Ashton Sellars' "talking guitar."
As noted, the first half of the album is exemplary, consisting of charming original compositions by Oscar Pettiford ("Blues in the Closet"), Victor Feldman ("The Chant"), Freddie Hubbard ("Red Clay"), Charlie Parker ("Yardbird Suite") and Bob Mintzer ("Easy Groove"). Tenor Akane Murata, one of two women in the saxophone section, solos with trombonist Kaito Walley on "Closet" and with trumpeter Michael Costeloe on "Red Clay." The other, alto Eilish Wilson, shares blowing space with trombonist Cameron Kidby on "Boogie Blues." Each is admirable, as are pianist Kristin Finnerty ("The Chant," "Green Dolphin Street"), tenor Shaan Singh ("The Chant," "Easy Groove"), guitarist Conway Jeune ("The Chant," "Baby Get Lost," "Teach Me Tonight," "Green Dolphin Street"), alto Bryn van Vliet ("Green Dolphin Street") and baritone Oscar Laven ("Awright Awright"). Drummers Cory Champion or Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa anchor the wide-awake rhythm section.
The hope is that these talented young men and women can find ways to keep on playing once their school days are behind them. Meanwhile, they have produced another album that is emphatically more than Awright. Keep doing what you're doing, Rodger.
Blues in the Closet; The Chant; Red Clay; Yardbird Suite; Easy Groove; Baby Get Lost; Teach Me Tonight; Boogie Blues; On Green Dolphin Street; Awright Awright.
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