One of the pleasures of attending a jazz festival (most of them, anyway) is seeing younger musicians interact with the pros, learning how to work together, to listen, respond and improvise, and helping to reassure us that the future of jazz is in reasonably good hands. Among the bands invited to take part in the Prescott (Arizona) Jazz Summit at the end of August was the "Ellington Band from the four-year-old Arizona Jazz Academy in Tucson, an impressive ensemble that boasted a number of admirable soloists and a firm group dynamic as well.
The Ellington Band is one of a dozen ensembles represented on the AJA's second album, Live at the TCC! (Tucson Convention Center), recorded about a year ago. As with Ellington, the various bands are comprised of high-school age students who rehearse after school and on weekends. The AJA is the brainchild of trombonist Doug Tidaback, who's the glue that holds the organization together. He also directs four of the AJA's nine bands, each of which is named after a prominent leader from the Big Band Era (Ellington, Basie, Herman, Kenton, Goodman, Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford, Tommy Dorsey/Artie Shawbut no Glenn Miller). Also performing on the album are the Arizona Women's Jazz Orchestra (conducted by Tidaback) and the High School and Middle School Vocal Jazz Groups (conducted by Crystal Stark). Directing the other bands are Pat Lawrence (Basie, Webb), Mark Phillips (Herman) and Tom Todd (Goodman, Dorsey/Shaw).
Alas, I must report that the Ellington Band is far less impressive on record than it was at the Summit, although I suspect that the murky and poorly balanced recording has much to do with that, as well as the rather odd choice of material (Kenton's "Peanut Vendor, which opens the album, and Bill Mays' "Prelude to the Royal Mongolian Sumo Foosball Festival, which closes it). Something by the Duke himself would perhaps have been more appropriate (and less taxing for Tidaback's young students, who are at times unsteady, especially on "Vendor ). The band has an outstanding soloist in tenor saxophonist Mike Moynihan, but if that's him taking the second solo on "Festival, he's largely wasted in that raucous context.
Among the other groups, the Basie Band ("Imagination, mislabeled "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To ), Lunceford Band ("Children of Sanchez ) and Herman Band ("It Don't Mean a Thing ) leave the strongest impression. But again, that may be the material speaking as loudly as the ensembles. In closing, a few observations: first, the AJA is a marvelous idea, Tidaback deserves a medal for making it come true, and it's wonderful to hear these young musicians playing Jazz and giving it their best shot. Second, try if possible to hear the AJA (or similar groups) live, as there's no way a recording can convey their spirit and energy. Third, should you find yourself anywhere near fledgling ensembles or groups such as these, lend them your support. It is greatly appreciated.