My first thought on hearing a new recording by Great Britain’s remarkably talented National Youth Jazz Orchestra (the collection numbers 16) is always, “This has to be the best thing they’ve ever done,” followed immediately by “I can’t believe everyone in that band is under 25, and that many of them are still teen–agers.” Musicians their age simply aren’t supposed to play with that kind of poise, maturity, precision and know–how. But they do. And many of them are terrific writers to boot! Stepping Stones, recorded in March ’98 at Ronnie Scott’s well–known Jazz club in London, is — are you ready for this? — the best recording NYJO has made to date. Well, let me rephrase that, as there is no such thing as “best” where this exemplary ensemble is concerned. Let us affirm instead that Stepping Stones is on a par with any of NYJO’s previous efforts, which in itself speaks volumes, especially to those who’ve heard director Bill Ashton’s super–charged scholars strut their stuff on other occasions. As usual, the band performs without a safety net, in front of an appreciative audience at Scott’s. No matter. Ashton knows how to prepare NYJO for such skirmishes (having done so for more than 30 years), and if there are any missteps they aren’t audibly detectable. The band comes out smokin’ on the Coltrane–inspired “Stepping Stones” (one of three driving compositions by tenor Martin Williams, who also solos with trumpeter Simon Finch and drummer Darren Altman), and that’s only the opening salvo in an explosive 71–minutes–plus concert date that must surely have left its audience spellbound and breathless. Williams also wrote “Tenors Racket” (a boppish 100–meter dash for him and fellow tenor Alyson Adams) and “Hot and Sweaty,” which ends the evening on an appropriately funky note reminiscent of Bob Mintzer’s sassier charts. Other impressive compositions by members of the band are trumpeter Mark Armstrong’s “The Man from Delmonte” and flutist Gareth Lockrane’s “I Remember the X-Men.” Crowning the concert are Ronnie Ross’s “Andromeda,” a dazzling feature for baritone Pete Wareham; Alan Hare’s “Miss Pankhurst Protests” (ditto for trombonist Andy Wood); Mark Nightingale’s fleet–footed “Mr. BG” (on which another trombonist, Barnaby Giles Dickinson, navigates the choppy waters with ease); Steve Parry’s “Back to Basie” (a bluesy Nestico/Hefti–style showcase for trumpeter Tim Jackson), and Allan Ganley’s graceful ballad, “Different Colours.” Sumudu Jayatilaka, the latest in NYJO’s succession of superior vocalists, sings “I Was Hoping” and “It’s Over,” both of which were written by Ashton. High marks too for the industrious rhythm section, emphatic brass and reeds, and soloists Lockrane (“X–Men”), alto Paul Jones and pianist Tom Cawley (“Different Colours”). Another unblemished triumph for NYJO.
Track listing: Stepping Stones; Andromeda; Miss Pankhurst Protests; The Man from Delmonte; I Remember the X–Men; Different Colours; Tenors Racket; I Was Hoping; It’s Over; Mr. BG; Back to Basie; Hot and Sweaty (71:26).
Darren Wiles, Bryan Davis, Mark Armstrong, Tim Jackson, Simon Finch, trumpets; Andy Wood, Andy Baker, Barnaby Dickinson, Mike Feltham, Pete North, trombones; Paul Jones, Sam Mayne, Martin Williams, Alyson Adams, Pete Wareham, saxophones; Gareth Lockrane, flute; Tom Cawley, piano; Pete Callard, guitar; Dave Foster, bass; Darren Altman, drums; Corinna Silvester, percussion; Sumudu Jayatilaka, vocals.
Contact: NYJO/Stanza Music, 11 Victor Road, Harrow, Middlesex HA2 6PT, England (www.NYJO.org.uk).