The Hall High School Jazz Ensemble, which hails from West Hartford, Connecticut, didn’t win this year’s Essentially Ellington high–school Jazz band competition at Carnegie Hall — but director Haig Shahverdian’s wunderkinds
placed second behind New York City’s LaGuardia High among 168 entrants (20 finalists were invited to New York), which certainly speaks well for the program (as does its third–place finish in ’97). For the last few years Shahverdian has kept his troops on a regular schedule — tour Europe during the even years, make a recording during the odd. And so we have for consideration a trio of discs, Pops ’n Jazz,
released in 1993, ’95 and ’97. The ensemble has won many awards since Shahverdian took the reins nine years ago including first place honors in the Down Beat
Student Music competition and Berklee College’s High School Jazz Festival and has even played the White House for President and Mrs. Clinton and their guests. It’s easy to hear why; this is in every respect an outstanding high–school Jazz program spearheaded by an admirably well–disciplined (for its level) Jazz ensemble. In ’93 and ’95 the school’s No. 1 unit, the Concert Jazz Band, shares playing time with the Jazz Band, Quintet and vocalists, whereas in ’97 there’s an expanded group of Jazz singers, Sextets from ’96–’97 and ’97–’98, and a Jazz Combo, also from ’97–98. The Concert Band appears on eight of a dozen selections in ’93, and has problems only with Bird’s mercurial “Donna Lee” (a rugged exam for any band). The main soloists, are of whom are fine, include alto Kris Allen, pianist Belle Bergner and trumpeters Jason Berg and Josh Wittenberg. The ensemble is especially effective on “Without a Song,” “Tenderly,” “Secret Love” (nicely embroidered by Allen, Berg and trombonist Aaron Picker) and Jeff Jarvis’s composition, “A Better Place.” ’95 and ’97 offer more of the same with even greater polish. It’s pleasing to note the players moving up from Jazz Band to Concert Jazz Band — and to see so many young women in the program, half a dozen or more in each of the group photographs, some carrying trombones, trumpets or saxophones. Another fine vocalist, Megan Keith, debuts in ’95 (“Come Rain or Come Shine”), replacing ’93’s Jenna Levitt (“We’ll Be Together Again”). Among the standout soloists in ’95: pianist Gregg Kallor, tenor Chris Carillo, trumpeter Bunker Highmark, bassist Garrett Sayers. Among the ensemble highlights: Sammy Nestico’s “Night Flight,” Jeff Jarvis’s volatile “Powder Keg,” the standard “Body and Soul,” Matt Harris’s “Otra Vez” (by the Jazz Band). The ’97 ensemble, which placed third in the Essentially Ellington competition, gives a good indication of how Shahverdian has brought the program along. There’s not a clunker in the lot, from “Strike Up the Band” to “It Might as Well Be Spring” and including three songs by Ellington — “Boy Meets Horn” (featuring trumpeter Steven Kaplan), “Harlem Airshaft” and “Sophisticated Lady.” Aside from Kaplan, the most frequently heard soloists are alto Erica Von Kleist, tenor Ethan Goldman, pianist Michael Jacobson and drummer Evan Allen. The saxophone section exercises its chops on Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love,” while the singers are heard (a cappella) on “My Romance.” A first–rate series.
Track listing: 1993 — Without a Song; We’ll Be Together Again; Thanksgiving; Donna Lee; Puddle Jumpin’; Berkeley Square; Tenderly; Cabeza de Carne; You’ve Changed*; Reconciliation; A Better Place; White Heat; Secret Love (66:45). 1995 — Night Flight; Come Rain or Come Shine; Sketches of the Mind; George’s Dilemma; Body and Soul; Otra Vez; Powder Keg; Close Enough for Love; The Second Season; Sunrise Lady (58:00). 1997 — Strike Up the Band; Boy Meets Horn; Green Dolphin Street; Easy to Love; Sphere; Tribute to Miles; My Romance; Escape Velocity; Witch Hunt; Harlem Airshaft; It Might as Well Be Spring; Dig; Sophisticated Lady (60:03).