Back in the days not long ago when Joe Eckert was directing the US Air Force's highest-ranking big band, the Airmen of Note, he spent some of his spare hours in Winchester, Virginia supervising the Shenandoah University Jazz Ensemble, and if the ensemble's debut recording is a valid barometer of its progress, that was time well spent. Eckert is now SU's full-time director of Jazz Studies, and under his astute guidance the ensemble has become a taut and swinging group, able to stand its ground against similar bands anywhere in the country.
As a hands-on CO, Eckert isn't averse to teaching by example, as he does with a glossy alto solo on Bob Mintzer's charming arrangement of the Vernon Duke/E.Y. Harburg standard "April in Paris. Elsewhere, he lets the students fend for themselves, which they do quite well on seven original compositions, some of which are better known than others. Besides arranging "Paris, Mintzer, who appeared in concert with the band shortly before the album was recorded, wrote "Go Go and "Frankie's Tune, each of which, in my opinion, leans too heavily on a rock beat, as do Alan Baylock's "Two Seconds to Midnight and John Fedchock's arrangement of Don Grolnick's "Pools. But that's a minor complaint, as each of them has much to offer and is capably performed by the SU undergrads.
The album opens with Benny Carter's delightful "Wiggle Walk and also includes John Coltrane's pensive "Central Park West (arranged by Fedchock) and Thad Jones' ambling "Big Dipper. Soloists are about what one would expect, decent albeit not overly creative. Tenor saxophonist Janet Longerbeam is a standout on "Central Park and nearly as sharp on "Dipper, "Pools and "Frankie's Tune, while drummer Nick Kirk is impressive throughout.
Eckert promises that this is the first in a series of yearly albums by the SU big band, and says in a letter that accompanied SU Jazz 2005 that the second one has already been recorded and should soon be released. It goes without saying that we look forward to hearing more from this bright and rapidly maturing ensemble.
Track Listing: The Wiggle Walk; Central Park West; Go Go; Big Dipper; April in Paris; Two Seconds to Midnight; Pools; Frankie
Personnel: Joe Eckert: director; Charles Hindt, Alex Serio, Gary Hofstetter, Maury Williams, Jordan
Hullinger: trumpet; Ashley Baker, Tim Andrulonis: alto saxophone; Janet Longerbeam, Bryce
Anderson: tenor saxophone; Craig Schenker: baritone saxophone; Joshua Clue, Sam Rock,
Eric Woolley, James Martin: trombone; Leeland Davis: piano; Kazuma Sone: guitar; Matt Berry:
bass; Nick Kirk: drums.