The Empire Jazz Orchestra, founded in 1992, is a professional Jazz repertory ensemble in residence at Schenectady County (NY) Community College. These high-powered albums, the first featuring guest artist Mark Vinci on alto saxophone, the second embracing appearances by tenor saxophonist Leo Russo and poll-winning baritone Nick Brignola, were recorded in 1999 during concerts spaced roughly six months apart (the first in April, the second in October). As the EJO specializes in performing original scores by important composers and arrangers, Plays Ellington,
recorded to mark that peerless composer's centenary, consists of ten of his compositions / arrangements from 1928 ("The Mooche") to 1970 ("Second Line," from The New Orleans Suite
). The Duke's recognition and appreciation of others' musical talents is underscored on Live and Kickin'
with the 1946 version of Juan Tizol's "Caravan" and son Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." Although the recorded sound on Live and Kickin'
is substandard and on Plays Ellington
no better than adequate, the EJO and its guests rise above it. Live and Kickin'
explodes from the starting blocks with Lennie Niehaus' three-movement "Tribute to Bird," on which Vinci summons forth the spirit of Charlie Parker as he and the EJO turn back the clock to let the audience glimpse what it must have been like to see and hear the legendary alto saxophonist chaperoned by a muscular big band. Following "Caravan" (solos by trumpeter Tony Speranza, trombonist Kent Olson, clarinetist Brett Wery, baritone Pete Shaulinski), Vinci unleashes cogent statements on a pair of his own compositions, "Crow's Nest" and "Postcards from My Heart" (the first with pianist Nicholas Lue). Vinci makes his third and last appearance on another of his originals, "A Little Dab," which follows the standard "It's You or No One" (solos by Speranza, Lue and tenor Kevin Barcomb) and precedes the album's unequivocal low point, a typically clamorous rendition of Charles Mingus' strident "Gunslinging Bird" on which seven soloists try to out-squawk one another. Let's call it a draw and move on. The EJO recovers some ground and closes on a high note with Mark Taylor's emphatic arrangement of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" (solos by Barcomb, guitarist Tony Santo, bassist Otto Gardner, drummer Bob Halek, trumpeter Scott Thompson). In all, a robust and entertaining concert performance. One of the main reasons the EJO was formed was to play the music of Ellington, which it does with unremitting fidelity to his arrangements on the second of these albums. Brignola and Russo are the soloists, and splendid ones they are, on "Cottontail" (from 1940). Brignola forges another engaging commentary on Billy Strayhorn's poignant "Blood Count," written during the composer's terminal illness in 1967. Trombonist Ken Olsen is featured on "Black and Tan Fantasy" (1940) and "Amad" (from The Far East Suite
), tenor Barcomb on "Oclupaca" (from The Latin American Suite
). A highlight is the nearly fourteen-minute-long "Ad Lib on Nippon," also from The Far East Suite,
whose radiant ensemble passages underscore sharp solo work by clarinetist Wery and pianist Nat Phipps. Wery solos again (with trumpeter Jon Bronk) on "The Mooche" and (with Olsen, trombonist Gary Barrow and trumpeter David Friedman) on the electrifying finale, "Second Line." If, as we surmise, the album was recorded in concert, audience response apparently was excised from a number of selections, as it is audible only on tracks 2, 3, 8, 9 and 10. Be that as it may, the EJO fashions wonderful reproductions of these Ellington classics, which is its essential raison d'ètre.
Big-band enthusiasts who've not heard the originals (there must be a few of you out there) — and even some who have — should find these newer versions quite pleasurable.
Contact:[email protected] Schenectady Community College, 78 Washington Avenue, Schenectady, NY 12305 (phone 518-381-1232; e-mail [email protected]; web site, www.sunysccc.edu).