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I can’t for the life of me understand the rationale of those who stand by the roadside and throw rocks at Jazz Studies programs. Yes, they have their blemishes, like any other enterprise, and most of the students won’t choose music as a profession (they’d much rather eat regularly), but at the very least these programs make new friends for Jazz and help keep it alive and strong. Where’s the harm in that? I’d rather hear young people playing Jazz than much of what passes for music nowadays. Which brings us to Portland State University, whose Jazz Studies program may not be as well–established or comprehensive as those at the University of North Texas or elsewhere, but is performing an outstanding service in teaching students Jazz fundamentals and giving them an opportunity to put them into practice, which is the whole idea. The PSU Jazz Ensemble, heard here on four selections, is fundamentally sound if not overly resourceful, and provides a secure backdrop for its guests, silver–toned tenor saxophonist Art Chaney (“In a Sentimental Mood”) and Ray Charles–inspired vocalist “Sweet Baby James” Benton (“Georgia”), while the smaller PSU Jazz Combo gives a good account of itself on the three–part suite, “Crossing the Bridge.” The final number, “Press On,” is a zestful duet for pianist Darrell Grant, assistant professor of Jazz Studies at PSU, and its composer, guitarist Jerry Hahn. Trombonist Ben Medlen and tenor Jake McLain offer dependable solos on the bouncy opener, Charley Gray’s “Better Than One,“ while pianist Ward and soprano Fotland do likewise on Grant’s evocative “Spirit of the Waters” (Grant also wrote “Crossing the Bridge”). In sum, a commendable endeavor by another of the country’s much–needed Jazz Studies programs.
Track listing: Better Than One; Spirit of the Waters; Georgia; Crossing the Bridge (1: The Avenue; 2: VanPort; 3: Blues for the Masters); In a Sentimental Mood; Press On (43:44).