In 2020, the superb Howard University Jazz Ensemble from the US capital marked its forty-fifth anniversary. Since its inception in 1975, the ensemble has had only one director, Fred Irby III, its founder and guiding force for lo these many years. One year after organizing the group, Irby assembled its members for a visit to a nearby recording studio, an annual practice that has continued uninterrupted every year since then. Why only one director? Listen to the ensemble's 2019 narrative, Hi-Fly,
and the answer becomes obvious.
The first item to note is that Irby always has the ensemble well-rehearsed and ready to rumble. Second is the choice of material, which is almost always commendable and in this case beyond reproach. Third, the ensemble's triad of topnotch arrangers: Joe Wright (five charts), Ron Horton (two) and the one and only Quincy Jones
's gently flowing "Moon River"). Fourth, but by no means least, the ensemble's uncommon array of impressive soloists who greatly enhance every number. Irby plays to his strength here, assigning almost all the solo space to trumpeter Paul Bailey, alto saxophonist Sterlyn Termine, pianists Tristan LaDale Benton and Jason Woods Jr. and guitarists Walter Beck and Theodros Alemu. The lone exception is bassist Aaron Freeman who solos crisply (with Termine and Alemu) on Lou Donaldson
's well-grooved "Blues Walk."
If there's a better way to open a session than by reanimating the Dave Brubeck
classic, "In Your Own Sweet Way" (crisp solos by Beck and Benton), it would be to follow that paradigm with the bright and beguiling standard "Aren't You Glad You're You," introduced 'way back in 1945 by Bing Crosby in the film The Bells of St. Mary's.
Delightful as those preambles are, the band is aiming for even higher ground, nailing Randy Weston
's bright and hummable "Hi-Fly" before striding confidently into Jay McShann
's animated "Jumpin' Blues" and Donaldson's "Blues Walk." Bailey and Alemu share solo space on "Aren't You Glad," Alemu and Termine on "Hi-Fly," Beck and Bailey on "The Jumpin' Blues."
Brass and reeds sparkle in Jones's rhapsodic treatment of "Moon River" (solos by Woods Jr. and Bailey, muted) before Irby plucks a brace of well-cooked but no less savory chestnuts from the fire to close the album on twin high notes while presenting ironclad evidence that no one is writing songs like these anymore. Beck lays down the melody and has the solo terrain to himself on the seductive "Old Devil Moon" (from the 1947 Broadway hit Finian's Rainbow
), after which Termine and Bailey neatly enwrap the handsome package with razor-sharp statements on Don Raye / Gene de Paul's lovely and luminous "Star Eyes." Forty-five years and counting, and the Howard University Jazz Ensemble seems to gain emphatic headway with every cycle of the calendar.
In Your Own Sweet Way; Aren’t You Glad You’re You; Hi-Fly; The Jumpin’ Blues; Blues
Walk; Moon River; Old Devil Moon; Star Eyes.
Aaron Freeman: bass; Samuel Prather: drums, congas.