There's a lot to be said for continuity. The Howard University Jazz Ensemble, formed thirty years ago, has had only one director, Fred Irby III. For 29 of those years, Irby has taken the ensemble into a recording studio to produce an album, the most recent of which is Grace Notes, or HUJE 2004. Although the personnel varies from year to year, as it must in any college-level orchestra, the overall excellence of the music is notably consistent, thanks to Irby's skills as a teacher and the eminent stature of Howard's Jazz Studies program, which draws many talented young musicians into its orbit.
At least one of these wunderkinds springs forth every year, it seems, and this time it's flugelhornist Lorne Lee who wrote three of the album's most enchanting numbers"Ballad Odyssey, "Waltz Back to You, "Una Noche en L.A. and solos handsomely on the last two. Lee also arranged Charles Medearis' sensuous "Theme for Gwen, on which Medearis (alto sax), bassist Eric Wheeler and pianist Milton Taylor Pace are the soloists.
The album takes its name from Frederick Tillis' "Verzierungen (Grace Notes), commissioned by the ensemble to honor Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., a surgeon, oncologist, medical educator, member of the Howard University faculty since 1962, and first African-American president of the American Cancer Society, Society of Surgical Oncology, Washington Academy of Surgery and American College of Surgeons. The multi-layered, chamber-like two-part tone poem, which draws its inspiration from the great saxophonist Julian "Cannonball Adderley, showcases clarinetist Kiarra Johnson, cellist Colle Latin and drummer McClenty Hunter.
"Grace Notes is preceded by Rodgers and Hart's "I Could Write a Book and followed by another dedication, Chris Royal's buoyant "Nobby Jobby, written for the late Noble Levi Jolley Sr., a talented guitarist and composer who was the university's first graduate in Jazz Studies. Alto saxophonist Charlie Young, director of the HU Jazztet, solos with the larger ensemble on Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan and leads the six-piece Jazztet in a trio of selections: Medearis' "Papa's Strut, trumpeter Marlon Winder's "When All Else Fails and Wheeler's "Imagery. Completing the album are three tunes by the nine-member vocal group Afro Blue, directed by Connaitre Miller: Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me, Ralph Carmichael's "A Quiet Place and Russell Ferrante's gospel-centered "Revelations, the last with rhythm section added.
Twenty-nine impressive albums and counting by the Howard U Jazz Ensemble, and I'm pleased that more than half of them are in my library, including the last dozen. After listening to Grace Notes, what more can one say, aside from "keep up the good work! It's always a pleasure to see and hear something reputable coming out of Washington, DC.
Track Listing: I Could Write a Book; Verzierungen (Grace Notes); Nobby Jobby; It
Personnel: HUJE Jazz Ensemble -- Fred Irby III, director; Columbus Wynn III, Marlon Winder, Joseph Teachey, Kieron Cavel Irvine, Lorne Lee, Steven Thomas, Michael Archey, trumpet, flugelhorn; Angela Everett, alto, soprano sax; Charles Medearis, Brent Birckhead, alto sax; Joseph B. Whitney III, James Lewis, tenor sax; Brandon Chapman, baritone sax; Kiarra Johnson, clarinet; Joseph Lovinsky, French horn; Paul Phifer, Seth Rees, trombone; Stephen Naylor, trombone, tuba; Eric Perkins, bass trombone; Don DeMarco Myles, truba; Colle Latin, cello; Milton Taylor Pace, Muhsinah Abdul-Karim, piano; Nicholas Lipkowski, electric guitar; Eric Wheeler, bass; McClenty Hunter Jr., drums; Russell Carter Jr., drums, vibes. Afro Blue -- Connaitre Miller, director; Danielle Withers, Sharena Howard, Jessica Boykin-Settles, Kim Douglas, Faith Jordan, Kevin Owens, Carlton Hicks, Jamall White, Thomas Bowman Jr., vocals; Milton Pace, piano; Eric Wheeler, electric bass; McClenty Hunter Jr., drums. HU Jazztet -- Charlie Young, director; Marlon Winder, composer, trumpet; Charles Medearis, composer, alto sax; Seth Rees, trombone; Muhsinah Abdul-Karim, piano; Eric Wheeler, composer, bass; McClenty Hunter Jr., drums.