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For its second album, and first under new director John Davis, the University of Colorado Jazz Ensemble 1 has chosen to focus on the music of pianist/composer Jim McNeely... no easy task, my friend. Four of the nine selections were written by McNeely, who is music director of the cutting-edge Vanguard and Stockholm Jazz Orchestras. To make navigating their treacherous shoals even more perilous, the ensemble performs three of them in concert, but if Davis’s students are working up a decent sweat it isn’t readily apparent. There aren’t any missed blocks or dropped passes in this scrimmage. McNeely is there not only to cheer them on but to make two guest appearances, soloing astutely on his arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” and his formidable litmus test, “Extra Credit” (which the ensemble deserves for facing it down).
Before crossing swords with McNeely’s challenging “Lickety Split,” the ensemble opens with John Clayton’s walking “Blues for Stephanie” and Bobby Troup’s classic “Meaning of the Blues,” the last featuring tenor saxophonist Peter Sommer who reminds me at times of Eric Alexander (one of the highest compliments I can bestow). Davis must know a good thing when he hears it, as Sommer is showcased again on McNeely’s modal, fugue-like “Absolution” and Maria Schneider’s pensive arrangement of the “Love Theme from Spartacus ” (with “Lickety Split,” one of the two numbers recorded in a studio). Bassist Rob Fahie and drummer Amy Shelley warmly introduce “Stephanie,” with other solos by trombonist Alex Heitlinger, trumpeter Joe Ferrone and pianist Andy Nevala. Ferrone solos with McNeely on “Midnight,” with Heitlinger, McNeely and tenor Heath Walton on “Extra Credit.” Sommer and Fahie are out front on McNeely’s “Pete’s Feet,” baritone Rich Inouye on “Lickety Split,” while Sommer and Walton lock horns on the closing number, Matt Catingub’s sizzling deconstruction of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” which he calls “Matt’s Mood.”
With brass and reeds sharp as a stiletto and Shelley, who provides plenty of power when it’s needed and keeps an agreeably low profile when it isn’t, presiding over a resilient rhythm section, it’s easy to understand why the CU Jazz Studies program has earned seven Down Beat magazine awards for excellence in the past two years. Davis clearly has the ensemble on track and headed in the right direction. This is a splendid album but not perfect, as there is some distortion (at least in my headphones, Sennheiser HD 457’s), most conspicuous during Sommer’s solo on “Absolution” and Heitlinger’s on “Stephanie,“ less so elsewhere. Perhaps my ‘phones are at fault, but I thought it should be mentioned. Aside from that, highly recommended.
Track Listing: Blues for Stephanie; The Meaning of the Blues; Lickety Split;
Personnel: John Davis, director; Matt Mealey, Andrew Flockhart, Joe Ferrone, Fred Garlington, Sean Butterfield (1, 2, 4, 7-9), Tim Suits (3, 6), trumpet; Ron Glenn (1, 2, 4, 7-9), Jayn Pettingill (3, 6), Serafin Sanchez, Peter Sommer, Heath Walton, Roy Coon (1, 2, 4, 7-9), Rich Inouye (3, 6), reeds; Alex Heitlinger, Joshua Favors, Sarah Kembel, Ian Shaw, trombone; Jon Fox, guitar; Andy Nevala, piano; Rob Fahie, bass; Amy Shelley, drums; Greg Harris (9), percussion.