While the latest CD by the splendid New Zealand School of Music Big Band may not be Too Cool, it's definitely chilly enough to demand that the average listener wear earmuffs while sampling its frigid yet at the same time fiery bill of fare. Blues got you down? A few bars of the orchestra's sunny curtain-raiser, Bill Liston's "Blues to Begin With," should cast them into the nearest dustbin. If not, you may be too far gone to benefit from any help. In which case, you might consider "Durban Poison" (only kidding, of courseeven though its punchy brass and impulsive rhythms are also tailor-made to chase the blues away).
A college band? That's undeniable, but these young men (and one woman) could turn pro tomorrow and almost no one would blink an eye. Too cool? Well, yes, if you mean that the NZSM orchestra smokes on every number, from the aforementioned "Blues" and "Poison" to Lennon / McCartney's "Michelle," Wayne Shorter's "E.S.P.," Bill Cunliffe's "Nilesology" and Matt Harris' irrepressible "Cappucino Freeway" and leisurely "Too Cool." The complete package? So it would seem, until the decision is made to toss in three vocals by Eugene Wolfin, starting with the Basie classic "Smack Dab in the Middle." That's not meant to devalue Wolfin, who does the best he can, but he's no blues singer, and is called on to handle twothe other is "The Woman's Got Soul"along with the standard "Moonlight in Vermont." Nothing displeasing, mind you, but the time could have been better spent on more instrumental fireworks.
Speaking of which, the galvanizing "Blues to Begin With" sets a swinging course that prevails throughout, with orchestra and soloists pushing hard to embrace and enliven the music. Music director Rodger Fox spreads the solos around, and everyone responds well to the challenge, especially alto saxophonist Bryn van Vliet, tenor Shaan Singh and guitarist Jules Blewman who are heard most often. Singh is showcased on "Too Cool," trumpeter Michael Costeloe on "Michelle," trombonist Cameron Kidby on "Smack Dab in the Middle." Trumpeter James Wisnesky is heard on "Moonlight in Vermont" and (with trombonist Kaito Walley and pianist Albert Lee) on "Nilesology," Blewman and Walley on "E.S.P.," Blewman and van Vliet on "Durban Poison," Kidby and tenor Karam Jung on "Cappucino Freeway." The rhythm section (Lee, Blewman, bassist Sam Thomson, drummers Kelly Ballard or Jacob Randall) is snug and responsive.
When all is said and done, it's clear that Fox has assembled quite an impressive ensemble at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, one that may well serve as a pipeline for recruits to his superb and long-running Rodger Fox Big Band. One stone thrown, two birds slain.
Blues to Begin With; Too Cool; Michelle; Durban Poison; The Woman’s Got Soul; Moonlight in Vermont; Smack Dab in the Middle; E.S.P.; Nilesology; Cappucino Freeway.
Rodger Fox: music director; Lex French: trumpet; James Wisnesky: trumpet; Michael Costeloe: trumpet; Jonathan Hulse-Sangster: trumpet; Bryn van Vliet: alto sax; Eilish Wilson: alto sax; Shaan Singh: tenor sax; Karam Jung: tenor sax; Duncan Phillips: baritone sax; Cameron Kidby: trombone; Kaito Walley: trombone; Sean Tickle: trombone; Luke Spence: bass trombone; Albert Lee: keyboards; Jules Blewman: guitar; Sam Thomson: bass; Kelly Ballard: drums (1-3, 5, 9); Jacob Randall: drums (4, 6-8, 10), percussion; Eugene Wolfin: vocals.