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Jazz Ensemble Of Memphis Showcases The Legendary Music Hub's Rising Talents On 'Playing In The Yard,' Set For Release April 5 On Memphis International Records

Jazz Ensemble Of Memphis Showcases The Legendary Music Hub's Rising Talents On 'Playing In The Yard,' Set For Release April 5 On Memphis International Records

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There's a lot of joy in the recording. They're playing for the love of the music and that comes through every note.
—David Less
Jazz Ensemble of Memphis
The storied musical city of Memphis, Tennessee presents its delegation to the rising generation of cutting-edge jazz artists with Playing in the Yard,the debut recording by the Jazz Ensemble of Memphis, hitting April 5 on Memphis International Records. An answer record to the revelatory 1959 album Down Home Reunion: Young Men from Memphis, the new album comprises a summit of five of the city’s freshest jazz talents, here playing together for the first time. (Playing in the Yard is available on CD as well as blue vinyl.)

The original album was a milestone for the Bluff City. It introduces the larger jazz world to the best and brightest of Memphis jazz musicians, many of whom would become world-renowned figures in their own rights: Booker Little, George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Jamil Nasser, and Phineas Newborn, among others. But if those players were young—Little, the baby of the assemblage, was almost 21—the new Jazz Ensemble of Memphis is younger still. Drummer Kurtis Gray and trumpeter Martin Carodine Jr. were 17 and 19, respectively, at the time of recording; tenor saxophonist Charles Pender II is at 26 the band’s elder statesman, with 25-year-old keyboardist/vibraphonist DeAnte Payne and 21-year-old bassist Liam O’Dell rounding out the lineup. In addition to their first time playing together, Playing in the Yard documents the young artists’ first time in a recording studio.

But their youth is deceptive. Each of the musicians plays with a finesse and perception beyond his years. If their age shows through, it’s only in their seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm. “There’s a lot of joy in the recording,” adds David Less, the producer who spearheaded the project. “They’re playing for the love of the music and that comes through every note.”

Both the love and the sophistication are heard throughout the album, whether in Pender’s gravitas-filled solo on “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the lowdown blues of Payne’s vibes on “The Crawl,” or Carodine’s old-soul trumpet voice on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” Yet there’s still plenty of room for exuberance, perhaps best captured in the sinuous reinterpretation of the classic “A Night in Tunisia,”on which everyone but the bassist contributes a sly solo,and the funky Sonny Rollins–penned title track, where Payne (on Fender Rhodes), O’Dell, and Pender each submit improvisations stacked with exclamation points. Their enjoyment is contagious, their music brimful of exciting promise. Special guest Jim Spake, a Memphis saxophone mainstay, is heard on soprano sax on the title track.

The Jazz Ensemble of Memphis is the fruit of a conversation between father and son Johnny and Jeff Phillips (nephew and great-nephew of Sun Records’ legendary founder Sam Phillips) and veteran music entrepreneur, critic, and producer David Less. The talk centered on the 1959 United Artists album Down Home Reunion: Young Men from Memphis, which had in its time broken some of the city’s hottest young jazz players to a national audience. The Phillipses commissioned Less—the former owner of and current producer for Memphis International Records, now owned by Jeff Phillips—to organize and produce a recording session that would serve as simultaneously a sequel and an update to the original album.

A keen observer (and discerning ear) of the local scene, Less rounded up a remarkable quintet of gifted players between the ages of 17 and 26. They included University of Memphis alumni Charles Pender II (tenor saxophone) and Liam O’Dell (bass); Martin Carodine Jr. (trumpet), a Memphian currently studying at the University of Miami; and two young Memphis natives and residents, Deante Payne (keyboards, vibraphone) and Kurtis Gray (drums). While the five had never played together, says Less, “It’s amazing how well they melded as a band.”

The fire and polish of Playing in the Yard bears witness to that melding. “These kids are bringing that excellence to fore,” says saxophonist and Memphian Kirk Whalum in the album’s liner notes, “with that unmistakable Memphis seasoning which sets them apart, and in the rarefied air of other Memphis giants.”

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Track Listing

Playing in the Yard; The Dark End of the Street; Things Aint What They Used To Be; The Crawl; When You Wish Upon a Star; A Night In Tunisia; The Dark End of the Street - Reprise.


Jazz Ensemble of Memphis
band / ensemble / orchestra

Album information

Title: Playing in the Yard | Year Released: 2024 | Record Label: Memphis International





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