The USC Thornton ensemble is composed mainly of freshmen and sophomores, and with that in mind one must reckon that they perform admirably on their first album, a generally palatable stew whose myriad ingredients have been well–seasoned and prudently stirred to accentuate their flavorsome character. The undergrads are given a helping hand on several selections by a number of well–known guest artists and / or faculty members — vocalists Carmen Bradford (“I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water”) and Tierney Sutton (“How About Me”), clarinetist Thom Mason (“Easy to Love”), trombonist Bill Watrous (“A Time for Love”) and guitarist Frank Potenza (“Time Check”). Ensemble director Bruce Eskovitz and his Jazz Studies colleague, pianist Shelly Berg, solo on “Muddy Water” with background vocals by the Glenn Carlos Singers. Eskovitz has his young charges primed and ready to rumble, so there aren’t many problems when it comes to hanging together. The trumpet section is especially sharp, as it shows on the dynamic “Trumpet Blues and Cantabile,” while all sections perform reasonably well on the faster numbers, “Time Check” and “Keep on Keepin’ On,” the last of which calls to mind an old Woody Herman / Sal Nistico barn–burner named “Hoedown” or something like that. Improvisation, of course, remains the heart and soul of Jazz, and that is where most younger musicians betray their lack of seasoning. That is certainly the case here with no one standing out but some — including alto Dylan Heaney (featured on “’Round Midnight”), tenors Garrett Kobsef and Jordan Wardlaw, soprano Ken Foerch, pianist Mike Cassedy and drummer Will Cruse — showing promise. Trombonist Bret Hamby scats well on Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” but that’s about as necessary as adding Cool–Wip to a well–baked lasagna. Instrumental highlights include Gerry Mulligan’s “42nd and Broadway,” Don Menza’s “Time Check,” Sammy Nestico’s “Queen Bee” and Eskovitz’s “La Carrera,” with Mason swinging softly on “Easy to Love” and Watrous testing the trombone’s upper limits on “A Time for Love.” The best advice one can offer to the USC Thornton Concert Jazz Ensemble is to do what the title of this album suggests: Keep on Keepin’ On.
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