If you’re partial to colorful and challenging big band music, you’ll surely appreciate this enterprising two-disc set by the Cal State-Hayward Jazz Ensemble, ably coached and directed by Dave Eshelman. Seven of the eleven selections were written by members of the ensemble, and one is by Eshelman. They complement Duke Pearson’s “You Know I Care,” Jim McNeely’s “Dreamers and Doers” and the inspiring anthem “America” by Kathy Lee Bates. The student compositions range from straight-ahead and swinging (trombonist Mark Lemstrom’s “Acoustic Gravy”) to openly ambitious (trumpeter Gary Coartney’s three-part “Concerto for Improvisation”), with a number of exhilarating stops in betweenincluding two spellbinding themes by trombonist Jeanne Geiger, “Excursions of the Heart” and “This.”
Disc A opens with Eshelman’s groovy “On the Line,” which introduces alto Jesse Levit and embodies a meaty statement by trombonist Brandon Au. Pianist Colin Hogan is featured on bassist Dan Parenti’s handsome tone poem, “Serene,” which precedes the first of Geiger’s impressive compositions: the richly textured (and freely swinging) “Excursions” (solos by Geiger, Levit, trumpeter Mike Olmos, Hogan on Fender Rhodes), and Lemstrom’s mouth-watering “Gravy,” on which Olmos, tenor saxophonist Ben Benavides and drummer Brian Sears are the most conspicuous diners. The soloists on Coartney’s expansive “Concerto” are Levit (“Turmoil”), flutist Chad Davis and Hogan, again on Fender Rhodes (“Inner Peace”), Olmos and guitarist Jason Countryman (“Resolution”).
Geiger goes Latin on “This,” a frisky cha-cha that ushers in Disc B on a carefree note with upbeat solos by Davis, Olmos and drummer Brian Fishler. Marcus Stephens’ leisurely “Vagabond” provides blowing room for his expressive tenor, Parenti’s fretless bass and Jesse Micek’s flashing piano, while Benavides’ sultry tenor is showcased on dazzling charts by Eshelman (“America”) and faculty member Doug Beavers (“You Know I Care”). Lemstrom’s “When You’re Around I Get the Blues,” another mind-blowing chart, accommodates ardent solos by Micek, Levit and Olmos, while McNeely’s typically strenuous “Dreamers” summons forth spirited commentary by the ensemble, pianist Hogan and trumpeter Olmos.
Bracing big–band Jazz on a grand scale, wonderfully performed by one of the country’s foremost university-level programs. Who could ask for anything more? Well, if there’s one small quibble, it is that all but a few bars of Excursions could have been housed on a single CD. But as it’s not a commercial enterprise, that’s really unimportant. It’s the music that counts, and CSU-Hayward is never less than awesome in that area.