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A conundrum, according to Webster, is “a riddle in which a fanciful question is answered by a pun,” or “a paradoxical, insoluble or difficult problem; a dilemma.”
The only conundrum surrounding the seventh album by Montreal’s McGill University Jazz Orchestra is whether it may be the best recording by a college-level ensemble that one encounters this year or merely one of the best. While that remains to be seen (and heard), the undeniable fact is that Conundrum is on a par with the orchestra’s albums from 1996-97 ( Something Personal ) and 1998-99 ( Sang-Froid ), each of which was included in this reviewer’s list of the year’s ten best big-band recordings (college and pro).
While that’s perhaps enough to recommend it, one must salute director Gordon Foote and his colleagues at McGill for ensuring that such a high level of musicianship is sustained year after year among ensembles with ever-changing personnel. Foote keeps testing them with formidable charts by Jim McNeely, Bill Holman, Chick Corea and others, and they never fail to meet his exacting standards. On Conundrum, the orchestra rushes eagerly from the starting gate to confront McNeely’s spiraling “Lickety Split,” and that ain’t easy, nor are Corea’s fiery “La Fiesta” (arranged by Tony Klatka), Holman’s angular “View from the Side” or either of the arduous essays written by members of the band, Allan McLean’s digitally challenging “Exner’s Fury” and Sean Craig’s fast-paced “Conundrum.” Coltrane’s verdant “Central Park West” (a showcase for Craig’s tenor saxophone) was arranged by John Fedchock, the surefooted “Giant Steps” by George Stone. Rounding out the program are a pair of superlative charts by swingmeister Sammy Nestico (“Quintessence,” “Ya Gotta Try”) and one each by Mike Abene (“The Touch of Your Lips”) and the late Hank Levy (“A Time for Love”). Craig is splendid, as are the other featured soloists, baritone Cam Wallis (“Lickety Split”) and alto Donny Kennedy (“Quintessence”). Others heard to good advantage include trumpeters Oscar Martinez and Andy King, pianist Chad Linsley, clarinetist Chet Doxas and trombonist Serge Arsenault. The rhythm section, ably commanded by Jim Doxas, is as taut and responsive as his snare drum.
Many things in life seem uncanny or beyond reason, but adding this album to your big-band library gives rise to no mystery, no enigma, no conundrum. As those omnipresent Nike ads insist, “Just do it.”
Contact: Gordon Foote, Faculty of Music, McGill University, 555 Sherbrooke St. West, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1E3, Canada. Phone 514-398-4542; fax 514-398-1540; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Track Listing: Lickety Split; Quintessence; Giant Steps; Ya Gotta Try; The Touch of Your
Personnel: 1999-2000 -- Gordon Foote, conductor; Donny Kennedy, Becky
Noble, Sean Craig, J.F. Blais, Chet Doxas, reeds; Denis Filiatreault, Jon
Mossing, Andy King, Brian Sand, Oscar Martinez, trumpet; Serge
Arsenault, Todd Stubbs, Barb Hamilton, Carolyn Black, Tom McCaslin,
trombone; Rob Fahie, Gord Mowat, bass; Chad Linsley, piano; Daniel
Lacoste, guitar; Jim Doxas, drums; Kiko, congas. 2000-2001
Jazz is a continuing revelation. The best show I ever attended was the
Roots Picnic at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia, or was it Robert
Glasper's Experiment at Lincoln Center, or was it Chick Corea with
Brian Blade at Oberlin College? Most of all I enjoy playing guitar and
composing beats with my Brooklyn-based group Space Captain.