Three years ago baritone saxophonist Phil Doggett phoned a friend, bass guitarist Chris Reid, who’d once performed with Great Britain’s most prominent training band, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, with the idea of forming a twenty–piece ensemble that would use nonprofessional musicians to play contemporary charts at a professional level. And thus was born the Millennium Jazz Orchestra, which recorded its first compact disc, Millennium,
in 1998, and its next, The Second Millennium,
a year later, on the eve of the 21st century. Millennium
finds the band at a rudimentary level, doing its best to enliven relatively unassuming charts by Tom Kubis, Frank Mantooth and others with two earnest but unexciting vocals by Nicola Clarke (Paul Higgs’ “I Thought I Was Through with Love,” NYJO director Bill Ashton’s “Wait & See”). Neither ensemble nor soloists is able to warm the thermometer, and the over–all performance is roughly equivalent to the stronger U.S. high school bands. The MJO dares to challenge Chris Smith’s formidable “Luton Hoo,” which earns an embarrassingly conclusive decision. That leaves only Kubis’ “Street Strut,” on which the band swaggers as briskly as it can while Dogget and tenor Simon Spillett offer respectable solos. So much for the first Millennium.
As for the second, what a difference a fresh calendar has made. The MJO still has rough edges to chip away at, but the over–all tenor is smoother and more assured under new music director Bob Cutting (who moved over from the trumpet section) and one can hear and feel the unflagging momentum as the sections gradually enhance their symmetry and soloists become more relaxed and assertive. While the differences aren’t bedazzling, the MJO has arrived at college level (compared to U.S. bands) and is moving glacially forward. The material isn’t that much more demanding (two more charts each by Mantooth and Kubis, another pair by Sammy Nestico, plus Don Menza’s “Groove Blues,” arrangements by Mark Nightingale and Dave Tanner, respectively, of Clarke’s new and improved vocals, “I Have Been Here Before” and “That Ole Devil Called Love,” Matt Harris’ treatment of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” on which Clarke scats, and an original samba, “Wotza Botza,” by the MJO’s guitarist, Werner Hunt, orchestrated by Phil Steel). But even though the bar isn’t raised uncommonly high, the ensemble clears it far more easily and consistently than on its earlier recording. By way of analogy, it can be said that the MJO crawled through its first recording, walks more confidently through the second, and if its trajectory remains true, should soon be standing tall and rubbing shoulders with many of the country’s more celebrated Jazz ensembles. Let us raise our glasses to hard work, dedication and the promise of auspicious tomorrows. Keep doing what you’re doing, guys; you have the right idea.
Track listing: Millennium — Bahia Yodel; Sambasta; I Thought I Was Through with Love; Darn That Dream; Alfie; Marie’s Shuffle; Wait & See; Luton Hoo; Street Strut (46:05). Second Millennium — ’S Wonderful; A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square; I Have Been Here Before; Wotza Botza; Early Autumn; Sweet Georgia Brown; Groove Blues; That Ole Devil Called Love; Scott’s Place; It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing (47:03).