Every year, almost like clockwork, director Fred Irby III sends me a copy of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble's latest recording, and I am always pleased and happy to be reminded that an undergraduate big band of this caliber resides and plays in my hometown (as a boy growing up in Washington, DC, I lived within walking distance of the Howard campusbut I did a lot more walking in those days).
Here's to Life! is the seventeenth album (since 1989) by the HU ensemble in my stockpile; the group has been recording since 1976. I don't know how Irby does it but they seem to get better with each passing year. In 2002 the decision was made to share the album with director Connaitre Miller's sometimes a cappella vocal group, Afro Blue, which performs splendidly on three of the fourteen tracks ("Alone Together, "Corcovado, "Abide with Me ). The rest is instrumental including dedications in memory of Shirley Horn ("Here's to Life, arranged by Scott Silbert) and Dr. Doris Valean Evans McGinty (Alan Baylock's "Quiet Sophistication ).
Irby's choice of material is beyond reproach, as are the recorded sound and playing time. Besides those already mentioned, the tunes include J.J. Johnson's "El Camino Real, Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom, the traditional Japanese folk song "Ringo Oiwake (Apple), Gene Thorne's "Next Chapter, Howard alumnus Wallace Roney's bustling "Northern Lights and Ari Barosso's perky Latin charmer, "Brazil. The ensemble also performs an instrumental version of "Alone Together and two themes by Benny Golson, the easygoing "Along Came Betty and colorful three-movement "Drum Thunder Suite.
The ensemble is sharp and clean, the soloists earnest and productive, especially pianist Milton Taylor Pace ("Lotus Blossom, "Together, "Next Chapter, "Northern Lights ), guitarist James Rodney Richardson ("Sophistication, "Ringo Oiwake, "Lights, "Brazil"), vibraphonist Micah Boise ("Here's to Life ), trombonist Mark Williams ("Camino Real, "Betty, "Lights ) and trumpeter Marlon Winder ("Oiwake, "Drum Thunder, "Betty, "Brazil ). Drummer Carroll Dashiell not only anchors the sturdy rhythm section but shines in a solo role on "Sophistication, "Brazil, "Lights and most notably the "Drum Thunder Suite.
There's not much more that one can say about Here's to Life! except bravo! for a job well done. The Howard University Jazz Ensemble has been producing high-quality music for more than three decades; may it continue to do so for many decades to come.
Quiet Sophistication; Here
Fred Irby III: director; Steven Thomas: trumpet, flugelhorn; Kieron Cavel Irvine: trumpet, flugelhorn; Joseph Teachey: trumpet, flugelhorn; DeMarr Woods: trumpet, flugelhorn; Marlon Winder: trumpet, flugelhorn; Michael Archey: trumpet, flugelhorn; Brent Birckhead: alto sax, flute; Harry Taylor: alto sax, flute; Randolph Woods Jr.: alto sax, clarinet; James Lewis: tenor sax, flute; Isaiah Allen: tenor sax; Kimberly Taylor: baritone sax; Seth Rees: trombone; Mark Williams: trombone; Paul Phifer: trombone; Stephan Naylor: trombone; Reginald Bowen: trombone; Eric Perkins: bass trombone; Milton Taylor Pace: piano; George Purnell: piano; James Rodney Richardson: electric guitar; Derryck Dawkins: electric guitar; Micah Boise: vibraphone; Eric Wheeler: bass; Carroll Vaughn Dashiell III: drums. Afro Blue -- Connaitre Miller: director; Danielle Withers: soprano; Rachel Robinson: soprano; Sydney Marshall: soprano; Kelly Pleasant: soprano; Brandi Pace: alto; CaShandra Bacon: alto; Jessica Chambliss: alto; Todd Price: tenor; Kevin Owens: tenor; Micah Robinson: tenor; Reginald Bowens: tenor; Jason Deering: bass; Brian Vickers: bass; Brian Lawson: bass.
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