The challenge when reviewing an album by any of the University of North Texas' superlative jazz ensembles is to find something to criticize. Perhaps you can; I can't. This is decisively true of the seventh recording by the UNT Two O'Clock Lab Band under the able direction of James Riggs, who has been at the helm for more than twenty-six years. There may be a misstep or two along the way, but none that my unrefined ears can detect. While UNT no longer boasts the only world-class Jazz Studies program, as it once did, it remains among the best in a growing field, in this country and everywhere elseif not atop the ladder, certainly within easy climbing distance of the top rung, exemplary in every respect.
The Best of the Big O, which spotlights ensembles from five semesters in 2001-03, is a textbook barometer of straight-ahead big band swinging, from Bill Reddie's colorful "West Side Story suite to Allen Vizzutti/Jeff Tyzik's Spanish-inspired "Fire Dance, a dramatic showcase for trumpeter Michael Bookman. Sandwiched between them are three charts by ex-Basie stalwart Frank Foster, two by the renowned Billy Byers, one each by Don Menza, Dave Zoller, Francy Boland, Phil Kelly, Bill Stapleton, and Mike Steinel. The graceful "Exit Fairy Tale, by UNT pianist Jangeun Bae, rounds out the splendid program.
The trumpet sections are awesome on Zoller's fleet "Exit Only (based on "After You've Gone ) and Menza's mercurial "Dizzyland, the trombones and reeds sharp and synchronous on every number, while the five (count 'em) rhythm sections never miss a beat. Bright soloists abound, starting with tenor David Fague, trombonist Scott Agster, and drummer Andrew Fockel (sitting in for the incomparable Buddy Rich) on "West Side Story. Bookman is featured again on Boland's breezy arrangement of "You Stepped Out of a Dream, while Fague solos with trumpeter Logan Keese on Stapleton's scorching arrangement of Cole Porter's "Easy to Love and Steinel's flag-waving "Nanu Nanu. Foster's "Back to the Apple, "Booze Brothers, and "Blues in Hoss' Flat are given intrepid and sharply honed readings, as are Byers' "Four Flats in Search of a Theme, his arrangement of Porter's "At Long Last Love, and Kelly's funky, well-stocked "Refrigerator.
There are two dedications, one to the late composer/arranger/pianist and UNT alum Frank Mantooth, and one to the late Robert Smith, an ardent supporter and "mascot of the 2002 Two O'Clock Bands who would walk six miles each day to attend rehearsals. When he particularly enjoyed one he would give the band an "OK sign, and when he thought they were especially outstanding he would clasp his hands above his head, giving them a "Big O and providing a name for this album. To paraphrase Shakespeare, a UNT Lab Band by any name would be spectacular, an opinion that The Best of the Big O serves only to reinforce. More than half a century on, UNT jazz continues to safeguard and enhance its standard of excellence.
Track Listing: West Side Story medley; Four Flats in Search of a Theme; Dizzyland; Back to the Apple; At Long Last Love; Booze Brothers; Blues in Hoss
Personnel: Collective -- Jeff Fort, Drew Pitcher, John Jeanneret, Marcus Wolfe, Aaron Lington, Jesse Cloninger, Stephen Clothier, Steve Fieldhouse, Joren Cain, Ben Burget, David Fague, Erik Reuman, Chad Donahue, Corey Bell, reeds; Walter Simonsen, Mike Shields, Steve Butts, Logan Keese, Frank Saffiotti, Ken McGill, Michael Bookman, Greg Duncan, Jason Levi, Matt Bricker, James Davis, trumpet; Zac Giffel, Steve Smith, Carl Murr, Grant Dawson, Jon Yeager, Eric Ordway, Trevor Shaw, Matt Lennex, Michael St. Clair, Brian Honsberger, Bryan English, Adam Jensen, Jonathon Adamo, Scott Agster, Sara Jacovino, trombone; Neil Shah, Hiro Morozumi, Jangeun Bae, Andrew Page, piano; Gary Melvin, Kevin Brunkhorst, Greg Petito, Alejandro Florez, Brad Williams, guitar; Matt Wigton, Ryan McGillicuddy, Russ Wimbish, bass; Danny Lueck, Stockton Helbing, Brad Boal, Andrew Fockel, drums.
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