Another impressive album (the twelfth in about as many years) by the always well-schooled University of Northern Iowa Jazz Band One, the first under new director Chris Merz who replaced long-time mentor Bob Washut last year. The disc marks that “transformation” while reassuring those who appreciate the ensemble’s work that the tradition of excellence established by Washut is destined to continue under Merz’s baton.
Like Washut, Merz has an adventurous nature, and the charts his students are called upon to master aren’t by any means child’s play, including as they do strenuous reading exams by Jim McNeely, Wayne Shorter, Bob Brookmeyer, Ray Anderson and Michael Mossman. Completing the program are insouciant swingers by Mary Lou Williams (“Scratchin’ in the Gravel”) and Sammy Nestico (“Front Burner”), Duke Ellington’s pre-swing-era “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” the standards “Lullaby of the Leaves” (recorded in concert) and “Get Happy,” and UNI alum Chris Schmitz’s elaborate opening essay, “Transformation.”
Mossman’s rhythmic “Cubauza” is an homage to the great Cuban trumpeter/composer, Mario Bauza, Shorter’s “Deluge” (arranged by Merz) a torrential outburst of well-shaped big band Jazz. The students definitely earn “Extra Credit” on McNeely’s essay of that name, as they do on Anderson’s capricious “Tapajack” and Brookmeyer’s self-descriptive “Boom Boom.” What strikes one most clearly is the relative ease with which these young musicians come to grips with such daunting material. Merz says the team lost a number of starters this year, but those who replaced them have stepped up to the plate and delivered some resounding blows.
The rhythm section, anchored by drummer Phil Martin and including pianist Jon Kvam and bassist Dan Oline, is especially responsive, while the brass and reeds display admirable coordination and exemplary firepower. Soloists, as is true of most top-level college ensembles these days, are capable if not unique, with Kvam, tenor Jeff Church and trumpeter Caleb Shreves nailing the mark on Francy Boland‘s smart arrangement of “Lullaby,” Shreves and tenor Jeff Guntren doing likewise on “Get Happy.” Shreves, trombonist Nathan Dishman and clarinetist Kyle Novak recreate the original solos on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.”
Even with a new conductor at the helm, the UNI Jazz Band One continues to strengthen its well-earned reputation for topnotch music-making, and Transformation is easily recommended to those who have already heard the band and those who have not.
Track Listing: Transformation; Cubauza; Scratchin
Personnel: Chris Merz, director; Brandon Lewis, Caleb Shreves, Christian Anderson, Chris Nitzschke, Chris Arnold (5, 6, 11), trumpet, flugelhorn; Nathaniel Gao, alto, soprano sax; Dave Oline, alto, baritone sax, flute; Jeff Church, Jeff Guntren, tenor sax; Kyle Novak, baritone sax, flute; Bill Scheidecker, Nate Dishman, Paul Hovey, Luke Pingel, trombone; Matt Boucher (10), tuba; Bob Dunn (10), banjo; Jon Kvam, piano; Dan Oline, bass; Phil Martin, drums, clav