Introducing the Toronto University Jazz Orchestra

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WP 2019 - 2EMBARGO / STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. BARSTOW: Medium Blue. TURNER: Over My Head. CLARIDGE: Apollo. MARSHALL: Summer’s Over. GRIFFIN: Undiagnosed. WESTON: Hi Fly. AGUDA: Embargo / University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra: Evan Dalling, Kaelin Murphy, Christian Antonacci, Ben Frost, tpt; Nick Adema, Vonne Aguda, Kyle Orlando, Charlotte McAffee-Brunner. tb; Charlotte Alexander, Ilinca Stafie, Fr-hn; Zach Griffin, a-sax/s-sax/fl; Griff Vona, a-sax/cl; Geoff Claridge, t-sax/cl; Jacob Chung, t-sax; Alex Manoukas, bar-sax/bs-cl; Anthony D’Alessandro, pno; Julien Bradley-Combs, gtr; Evan Gratham, bs; Jacob Slous, dm; Gordon Foote, cond / private issue, no number

Although the Toronto University Jazz Orchestra made a CD in 2017, it was as a backup to British jazz singer Norma Winstone. This disc, scheduled for release on January 10, 2020, is thus the band’s first outing as an instrumental group in their own right. Leader Gordon Foote, a jazz veteran with 26 years’ experience as a Professor of Jazz Studies at McGill University, has molded them into a stunning unit that can easily compete with the best professional jazz orchestras in both Canada and the U.S.

At 19 pieces, the sheer size of the band might seem to be overwhelming, but of course it’s all in the arranging. As Glenn Miller once said, four trumpets, four trombones and five reeds give you a lot of leeway to mix and match your players to create interesting timbres, and here the UT forces also includes two French horns à la Claude Thornhill in addition to the standard rhythm section. And this is one of the things that impressed me the most about this group: their arrangements. They aren’t trying to ape what I call the “Tonight Show Band sound,” which is pretty much what a good but generic big band has sounded like for the past half-century. The other thing that impressed me was that, except for the first track, all of the arrangements were written by the band members themselves. Director Foote has an awful lot to be proud of.

Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train (partly attributed here to Duke Ellington, who didn’t write a note of it) is the opener in an excellent arrangement by the late Rob McConnell. Trombonist Nick Adema is the first soloist up, and although it is a well-crafted solo it relies on some predictable turns of phrase, as does Alex Manoukas’ baritone solo, but Geoff Claridge, on alto sax, is more original. I really liked the airy texture the band achieves here. The second half of Kaelin Murphy’s trumpet solo is also quite good.

Hannah Barstow’s Medium Blue opens with a piano lick before moving on to an attractive theme played by Claridge. It’s so nice to hear a modern jazz original with a real melodic line; such things seem to have disappeared from most of the jazz I review. Turner’s score focuses on the brighter instruments, alto saxes and trumpets, but also uses an airy sound. A fine Zach Griffin solo is then heard, in the Paul Desmond vein but not a carbon copy, followed by a good tenor solo by Jacob Cheung. Brad Turner’s Over My Head is  played in a straightahead bop rhythm, but the melodic line takes some interesting chromatic twists and turns. The band’s airy sound remains a treat to hear as this one features some nice drum breaks by Jacob Slous and, wonder of wonders, a clarinet solo by Claridge—not a bass clarinet, mind you, but a real clarinet! Claridge’s ideas are again excellent though I found his clarinet tone a bit thin. Bassist Evan Gratham contributes a nice solo of his own. Adema’s trombone solo is more original and less predictable on this one, too, and this is followed by a nice half-chorus scored for baritone sax playing in unison with a muted trumpet.

Claridge’s Apollo is in ballad tempo but not a sentimental tune by any stretch of the imagination. It is, rather, a nice cool jazz piece in medium-slow tempo, scored for low trombones playing against a lone trumpet with a little guitar mixed in. The composer, who apparently is one of the stars of the band, gets yet another solo, as does trumpeter Ben Frost, but the real star here is the arrangement which is continually fascinating in the way Claridge mixes the instruments to create interesting timbral blends. I’ve been harping on this “lost” aspect of jazz band arranging forever on this blog; I can only hope that Claridge never loses his touch in this respect. Listen to the way he dovetails the French horns, muted trumpets and reeds together behind the latter part of Frost’s solo, using portamento smears to blur the tonality. Good job!

Next up is Summer’s Over by Jesse Marshall, a medium-tempo piece scored very lightly, almost as if the band was a mere septet. The contours of the melodic line are a bit more obscure in this one, but once again the composer has used his imagination in the manner of scoring. Good solos here by Chung on tenor and Charlotte McAfee-Brunner on trombone. There’s also a nice rising chromatic passage built into the tune during the break behind Chung’s solo and, at the 5:38 mark, Toshiko Akiyoshi-like contrasts between the clarinets and trombones.

Zach Griffin’s Undiagnosed starts out as another slow number closer to a ballad in feel though both the harmonic base and the scoring are original and interesting. But the tempo suddenly changes to a quicker pace, the melodic line changes somewhat, and the band is up and running. A sudden alto break increases the tempo even more as the whole band gets in on the act, with a blistering trumpet-alto sax chase chorus by Murphy and Griffin that left me breathless. At 5:38 we suddenly slow back down for a nice coda.

Randy Weston’s Hi Fly reminded me of a piece by Sahib Shihab when he was leading the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra back in the mid-1960s although it has its own twists. This is a medium-tempo swinger featuring some nice, laid-back piano by Anthony D’Alessandro and the five-man sax section scored beautifully for the middle chorus, which sounds like an improvisation that was orchestrated. Christian Antonacci plays a nice, Clark Terry-like solo over stop-time chords by the trombones and French horns. Griff Vona also contributes a very nice alto solo. The album concludes with the high-powered Embargo by Vonne Aguda. The only thing I disliked about this track was the obviously rock-influenced guitar solo; everything else was fine, particularly Aguda’s trombone solo.

This disc is an admirable outing for this excellent ensemble. I hope to hear more from them in the future!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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