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One sure sign of spring is the arrival of the latest yearly recording by the superb Howard University Jazz Ensemble, a tradition that dates without pause from the days of vinyl in 1976, one year after the ensemble was formed by its first and only music director, Fred Irby III. For archivists and numbers-crunchers, that's forty-four years and counting.
Unlike some of its precursors, HUJE 2018 is entirely instrumental; it does, however, include the usual measure of exemplary arrangements, from Ron Horton's garden-fresh treatment of Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You" to Scott Silbert's groovy take on the folk evergreen "Frankie and Johnny." They are separated by a literal handful of jazz staples, the Gershwin brothers' "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and one luminous but lesser-known theme, "For the Love of Money." The jazz-linked entries are Herbie Hancock's "Driftin,'" John Coltrane's "Dear Lord," Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk," Walter Davis Jr.'s "Sweet Cakes" and Russell Malone's "Sweet Georgia Peach."
When soloists are required to step forward and have their say, Irby turns most often to members of the rhythm section to perform that essential task. Electric guitarists Walter Beck and Theodross Alemu solo on three numbers each, bassist Eliot Seppa on three others, pianist Tristan Ledale Benton on "Sweet Cakes" and "Frankie and Johnny," drummer Aaron Freeman on "Love of Money." The only other soloists are tenor saxophonist Antonio Parker ("Blue Monk," "Sweet Cakes," "Sweet Georgia Peach") and soprano Na'Vaughn Martin ("I Concentrate on You"). Even so, every solo is well-drawn and never less than engaging, as is true of the impressive charts by Horton, Silbert, Joe Wright, Mike Crotty and Rob Lussier.
As noted, Irby and the Howard ensemble from Washington D.C. have been producing admirable recordings for more than four decades, and HUJE 2018 is clearly no exception to the rule. Unreservedly endorsed.
I Concentrate on You; Driftin’; Dear Lord; For the Love of Money; Blue Monk; Sweet Cakes; They Can’t Take That Away from Me; Sweet Georgia Peach; Frankie and Johnny.
Fred Irby III: music director; Jonathon Neal: trumpet, flugelhorn; Aaron Broadus: trumpet, flugelhorn; Christian Adkins: trumpet, flugelhorn; Robert Perry: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jalissa Douglas: trumpet, flugelhorn; Na’Vaughn Martin: alto, soprano sax, flute; John Felder-Washington: alto sax; Antonio Parker: tenor sax; Sterlyn Termine: tenor sax; Dionne Ledbetter: baritone sax; David Onley: baritone sax; Christopher Steele: trombone; Paul Phifer: trombone; Curry Hackett: trombone; George Allen: bass trombone; Tristan Ledale Benton: piano, Fender Rhodes; William Richards: vibraphone; Theodros Alemu: electric guitar; Walter Beck: electric guitar; Eliot Seppa: acoustic, electric bass; Samuel Prather: drums, congas; Aaron Freeman: drums.