Another year, another anthology of stellar big-band jazz from the University of North Texas' flagship ensemble, the One O'Clock Lab Band, which carries on a tradition of annual recordings that was begun more than four decades ago. It's a custom that has not only served the university well but has produced a long and unbroken series of splendid large-ensemble albums, and Lab 2014 is clearly no exception to that rule.
To declare that Lab 2014 is superior is not to overplay one's hand; on the contrary, every track serves only to reinforce such an appraisal. To begin with, any band that leads with a barroom piano and down-home blues in place of the usual curtain-raising flag-waver brandishes its audacity and self-assurance from the outset. The flag-waver arrives next, Keith Karns' animated salute to "Brookmeyer," which paints a lovely and loving portrait of the late great valve trombonist / composer. Then it's off to the Caribbean for pianist Gabriel Evens' rhythmically charming "Master Aruba," followed by Drew Zaremba's gorgeous arrangement of the Jerome Kern / Johnny Mercer standard "I'm Old Fashioned," further enriched by Zaremba's soulful alto solo.
Fusion takes its not-universally-pleasing turn on Branson Garner's fractious "Wholesome Recreational Activity," which precedes the (mostly) lyrical "A Father's Love" (composed by Aaron Hedstrom, earnest tenor solos by Niels Rosendahl and Mark Hartsuch), Zaremba's sparkling arrangement of Dave Brubeck's sunny "Cassandra" and UNT faculty member Rich DeRosa's pensive "Mixed Emotions" (solos by guitarist Horace Bray and flugel Stuart Mack). The band wraps things up with current director Steve Wiest's lively treatment of the Cole Porter standard "I Love You," scored originally for trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's dynamic ensemble. Baritone Brian Handeland solos (as he does on flute on "Master Aruba") alongside trumpeter Mack, drummer Nolan Byrd and percussionist Lupe Barrera. Pianist Evens, who composed "Aruba," is the nominal "Gabe" on Zaremba's opening "Blues for Gabe," on which he solos with bassist Jack Helsley, while Hahn (soprano), Rosendahl and Bryd share solo space on "Brookmeyer," Handeland, Byrd, Barrera and trumpeter Ally Hany on "Aruba." Hartsuch, Byrd and trombonist Joakim Toftgard are out front on "Recreational Activity," Zaremba, Hahn, Hany, Toftgard and Byrd on "Cassandra."
There is only one knock on the One O'Clock Bandusually offered by those who simply must find fault with something and that is that the group is "too academic" and therefore doesn't "swing." The proper response to that can be summed up in one word: preposterous. Lab 2014 should lay that fiction to rest once and for all while proving again that when it comes to university-level Jazz Studies programs, UNT simply has no peer.
Blues for Gabe; Brookmeyer; Master Aruba; I’m Old Fashioned; Wholesome Recreational Activity; A Father’s Love; Cassandra; Mixed Emotions; I Love You.
Steve Wiest: director; Jake Boldman: trumpet; Andy Cresap: trumpet; Ransom Miller: trumpet; Ally Hany: trumpet; Stuart Mack: trumpet; Drew Zaremba, Alex Hahn, Mark Hartsuch, Niels Rosendahl, Brian Handeland: saxophones; Zach Steele: trombone; Joakim Toftgard: trombone; Julie Gray: trombone; Colby Norton: trombone; Jan Gauer: bass trombone; Gabriel Evens: piano; Horace Bray: guitar; Jack Helsley: bass; Nolan Byrd: drums; Lupe Barrera: percussion.
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