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Good things sometimes happen to those who open their mouths and say hello to a stranger. Browsing the booths at the recent IAJE conference in Toronto, I noticed one tucked in a corner beneath a sign that read “Koyo Conservatory-Kobe, Japan.” Approaching its lone occupant, a small and very courteous man, I engaged him in conversation and managed, in spite of the language barrier, to make known my interest in big bands. Smiling, he reached beneath the counter, picked up a compact disc and handed it to me with his card. His name is Akira Nonomura, and he’s the leader, as it turns out, of the splendid Global Jazz Orchestra whose latest album we are appraising here (the GJO recorded once before, in 1992).
The first surprise, courtesy of the sleevenotes by tenor saxophonist Tatsuya Takahashi, former leader of the Tokyo Union Big Band, was learning that the GJO is a non-professional ensemble (I assume it’s associated in some way with the Koyo Conservatory) that rehearses twice a week and presents live performances twice a month; the second was that the fourteen selections on Global Standard (and one that didn’t make the cut) were recorded in a single day. Takahashi says he wishes that more time could have been spent in the studio, but it’s hard for this novice to imagine that the finished product would have been appreciably better. In spite of its amateur standing, the GJO is impressive in every respect precise, powerful, swinging and clearly well-rehearsed. The Japanese excel in many areas, and we can be thankful that big-band jazz is one of them.
Global Standard is a remarkably well-framed album, further enhanced (on “One for Monterey” and the ballad “Hey There”) by the presence of one of the country’s most celebrated players, alto saxophonist Takashi Furuya, whose son, Mitsuhiro, plays tenor in the ensemble (and solos smartly on “Tenor Machodesu,” “Feelin’ Good” and “Samba Deez, Samba Doze”). Leader / flugel Nonomura steps forward only once, on Kohei Morishita’s bracing “Wind from Monterey.” Morishita also wrote “Bird Sanctuary” and “Another Elephant,” alto saxophonist Mitsuru Kobayashi the buoyant “Tenor Machodesu.” Other highlights include Kris Berg’s rapid “Overdrive,” Don Ryland’s frisky “Feelin’ Good,” Dizzy’s dynamic “Night in Tunisia” and Cedar Walton’s sturdy “Firm Roots.” Standing out among a corps of admirable soloists are Kobayashi, trumpeter Tetsuya Tatsumi, pianist Chicko Maki and trombonist David Boyle (how’d he get in there?). Although vocalist Emiko Mizoguchi does the best she can on “Deedle’s Blues,” “One for Monterey” and “I Loves You Porgy,” she seems comfortable only on the last one.
The GJO, on the other hand, is at home in any surroundings, and has produced an album that is sure to please anyone who appreciates premium-grade high-performance big-band jazz.