The Cal State Hayward Jazz Ensemble has earned many laurels in recent years, but director Dave Eshelman won’t let his bright–eyed students rest long on any of them. Metro, the CSUH ensemble’s most recent album, is a typically challenging amalgam of original compositions by Eshelman and others (including three by the ensemble’s gifted pianist, Ayn Inserto) that brings to mind thoughts of traversing a high wire without a net. Lead trombonist Doug Beavers arranged two numbers (Conrad Herwig’s “Tilt,” J.J. Johnson’s “Enigma”), trumpeter Derek Jacoby a third (Chick Corea’s translucent “Mirror, Mirror”). Eshelman wrote “Metro” and “Samba de San Jose” as part of a four–movement work entitled Suite for Jazz Orchestra commissioned in ’98 by the San Jose Jazz Society and recorded by the San Jose Jazz Festival Big Band under Eshelman’s baton. Inserto composed “From Z to A” (inspired by Rachel Z), Changeology” (based on “I Got Rhythm”) and “Upsey Dave E” (dedicated to you–know–who); the peerless Mike Crotty arranged Bob Berg’s slithery “Snakes,” and Jim McNeely’s “Finally” completes the program. A sumptuous banquet with nary a piece of cake on the spacious table. I only wish that the frolicsome “Samba de San Jose” and “Upsey Dave E” had been placed earlier in the session, as they provide an amusing respite from the more austere fare that precedes them. But even though the music on Metro is aimed toward the serious–minded listener, it never strays beyond the border of accessibility (that is to say, melody, harmony and rhythm aren’t cast adrift in the pursuit of modernism). The ensemble boasts a number of capable soloists, most notably tenor saxophonist Dave Wells who’s heard on every number but “Samba de San Jose.” Others making impressive statements include trumpeters Jacoby and Mike Olmos, pianist Inserto, trombonist Beavers, altos Jeff Prinz and Amelia Timbang, flautist Brandon Wright and drummer Steve Moretti. The CSUH ensemble was awarded first prize at the Fresno and Reno Jazz Festivals in ’99 and took home every individual honor as well, perhaps the first time — and if not, certainly one of the few times — that has happened at any comparable event. This album, recorded in ’98 (four tracks) and ’99, sets forth convincing evidence that the judges at those festivals weren’t unreliable. This is a first–class Jazz ensemble by any measure.
Track listing: Metro; To Z from A; Finally; Tilt; Enigma; Changeology; Snakes; Mirror, Mirror; Samba de San Jose; Upsey Dave E (67:35).
Dave Eshelman, director; Jeff Prinz, alto sax, clarinet; Amelia Timbang, alto sax, flute; Dave Wells, tenor, soprano sax, flute; Jeff Chang, tenor sax (3, 4, 6