One sure sign of spring is the arrival of the latest studio recording by the always exemplary Howard University Jazz Ensemble, a tradition that dates to 1976, one year after Fred Irby III (who remains its first and only music director) founded the Washington, DC-based ensemble. Unlike most of these enterprises, which are labeled HUJE followed by the number of the year in which they were recorded, this one has a name: Beatrice. While no other information about her is given, Beatrice is indeed fortunate to have had a song as lovely as Sam Rivers' paean written about her.
One charming melody begets another, it seems, and Beatrice is ear-friendly from start to finish, enfolding seductive themes by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Fats Navarro and Ornette Coleman alongside Joao Donato's tantalizing "A Ra (The Toad)," the durable jazz standard "On Broadway" and Burt Bacharach / Hal David's well-traveled theme from the British film "Alfie." The arrangements, by Ron Horton, Rob Lussier, Joe Wright, Mike Crotty and Scott Silbert, are first-class in every respect, as befits an ensemble as proficient as this one.
Irby always has a sizable number of strong soloists on whom to call, and none of them proves less than proficient. Tenor saxophonist Kenneth Nunn is showcased on Coltrane's "Central Park West," guitarist Rick Peralta on "Broadway." Nunn and pianist Tristan Benton share the spotlight on "Beatrice," Peralta and flugel Paul Bailey on "A Ra," Benton and Bailey (trumpet) on Monk's quirky yet accessible "Evidence" (based on the standard "Just You, Just Me"). Benton and alto Royce Hodnett are front and center on "Alfie," Benton and trumpeter GianCarlo Jerry on Navarro's lyrical "Nostalgia" (based on "Out of Nowhere"), Jerry and Peralta on Coleman's Latin charmer, "Una Muy Bonita."
As is true every year, the Howard ensemble scores high marks for artistry and awareness. Beatrice is the latest in an unbroken series of commendable narratives that spans more than four decades. In closing, congratulations to director Fred Irby III, one of the year's three honorees for the university's Benny Golson Jazz Master Award, first presented to its namesake (and Howard University alumnus) in 1996.
Beatrice; Central Park West; On Broadway; A Ra (The Toad); Evidence; Alfie; Nostalgia; Una Muy Bonita.
Fred Irby III: music director; Jonathan Neal: trumpet, flugelhorn; GianCarlo Jerry: trumpet, flugelhorn; Christian Adkins: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jalissa Douglas: trumpet, flugelhorn; Paul Bailey: trumpet, flugelhorn; Royce Hodnett: alto, soprano sax; Na’vaughn Martin: alto sax; Kenneth Nunn: tenor sax, flute; Kimberly Rose Marshall: tenor sax; Ganiat Oyegbola: baritone sax; Christopher Steele: trombone; Paul Phifer: trombone; Krystal Campbell: trombone; George Allen Jr.: bass trombone; Joseph Wilson: piano; Tristan Ladale Benton: piano; Rick Peralta: electric guitar; David Bamber: acoustic, electric bass; Savannah Grace Harris: drums; Merle Staten II: drums; Brittany Nicole Jiles: vibes, percussion.
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