The Shenandoah University Conservatory Jazz Ensemble, which makes its home in the heart of Virginia's picturesque Shenandoah Valley, continues on its upward path under director Joe Eckert, late of the US Air Force Airmen of Note, with the second in a series of yearly albums whose purpose is to affirm and underscore the ensemble's forward progress.
Despite the inevitable changes in personnel, the '06 ensemble plays with poise and assurance, and it's clear from the outset that Eckert has not only taught his charges to swing, but has also given them ample occasion to do so on a number of dynamic charts, from John Fedchock's "Brazilian Fantasy and "Elvin's Empire to Doug Beach's "Missing Tooth," Chick Corea's "Tones for Joan's Bones, Mike Tomaro's "Payback and Bob Florence's "Party Hearty. Rounding out the enticing program are Michael Brecker's rhythmic "African Skies, Thad Jones' seductive "To You (a marvelous workout for the ensemble) and Francy Boland's hip arrangement of the venerable "Lullaby of the Leaves.
No band can swing, of course, without a perceptive rhythm section, and SU definitely has one, smartly supervised by drummer Mike McGarity and including guitarist Kazuma Sone, bassist Matt Berry and pianists Leeland Davis or Rieko Okuda. Topnotch sound (the album was recorded by students, mixed by Eckert and Golder O'Neill) underscores the rhythm section's agility and power and the striking symmetry of brass and reeds (for Exhibit A, check out the dazzling solis on "Party Hearty").
Eckert has unearthed some admirable soloists too, most notably saxophonists Tim Andrulonis and Tyler Sosby, trumpeter Gary Hofstetter, flugel Maury Williams, bassist Berry, drummer McGarity and pianists Davis and Okuda. Andrulonis is a standout on alto ("Tooth, "Fantasy, "Party ) and soprano ("Joan's Bones ). Not to be outdone, Eckert unsheathes his alto, invites fellow SU faculty member (and longtime Army Blues trumpet star) Craig Fraedrich to join him, and wails with gusto alongside Okuda and McGarity on "Elvin's Empire, Fedchock's impressive salute to the late drummer Elvin Jones.
Lullaby leaves no doubt that the SU Jazz Ensemble is blossoming under Eckert's guidance and will continue to move upward within the ranks of the country's most respected undergraduate ensembles. I'm already looking forward to hearing what Eckert and SU have in their game plan for '07.
Track Listing: Missing Tooth; African Skies; To You; Lullaby of the Leaves; Brazilian Fantasy; Tones for Joan
Personnel: Joe Eckert: director; Charles Hindt, Alex Serio, Gary Hofstetter, Maury Williams, Jordan Hullinger: trumpet; Tim Andrulonis, Colin Macy-O
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