The New England Jazz Ensemble saw the light of day in June of 1991. Its formation was prompted by musicians who had taken one too many sentimental journeys and trips on the "Skyliner." At the same time, these musicians wanted to continue to experience the excitement of a big-band setting. There's nothing as invigorating emotionally and musically as "16 men swinging." Drawing upon the large base of good musicians in the New England area, the group was established and brings the dynamics and solidarity of a big band to modern music. Mike Jones, who has been with the Sonny Costanzo and Artie Shaw organizations, is the founder of the group. Walt Gwardyak, a charter member, is the musical director and pianist. Among others, he has worked with the Buddy Rich Band.
This recording - - the group's second - - documents a 1997 recording session, but was not released until February of 2000. Freewheeling, outstanding soloists, and exciting arrangements that allow for freedom of expression, without falling into musical anarchy, is the hallmark of this outfit. The slinky "Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired" has sinuous brass work with a high-powered trumpet solo by Phil Person followed by Charles Socci's clarinet. "Isotope" features exceptional ensemble work by all the band's sections behind the thumping drumming of Jim Royle and the imaginative bass strumming of Steve Bulmer. These two members of the rhythm section maintain an effervescent rhythmic pace throughout the album. Bronislau Kaper/Paul Francis Webster's haunting "Invitation" gets a face lift with a brighter than usual arrangement by John Mastroianni featuring the reed section where the clarinets dominate resulting in a happy light sound. "Calm Before the Storm," arguably the most serious piece on the album, slips into a classical mode from time to time and spotlights a soft, sensitive trombone by Tim Atherton. Works by giants of jazz Joe Henderson and Don Cherry receive well-informed readings. The album of mostly new music with creative arrangements played by outstanding, well-schooled musicians who have a vested interest in this cooperative organization is highly recommended.
Just one listen and I had to review the New England Jazz Ensemble's third CD, the 2003 release, A Cookin' Christmas, even though it was March 2004. An exciting band with quality charts! So I recommended to readers that they shop early if only for themselves. Those who have waited for the NEJE's fourth release will be more than happy with Live at the Pittsfield CityJazz Festival.
This Connecticut-based orchestra has been on the jazz scene since 1991. Loaded with talent, it furnishes the band's composer/arrangers with an outlet for their works and provides the players with challenging charts. Just about everyone solos. The result is a treat for the ears
For the Pittsfield session, co-founder, pianist and musical director Walt Gwardyak came up with three originals: the intricate "Some Minor Stuff," with a strong trombone solo by Peter McEachern, "Neves," all funky and 7/4, and the swinging blues, "Tron," which gives bassist Steve Bulmer some time up front. Composer/trumpeter Phil Person has us Brazil-bound with his "Nossa Bova." Lead alto John Mastroianni presents an up tempo "Nasty Masty," full of solos, and his intriguing arrangement of Joe Lovano's "His Dreams" with George Sovak on tenor. From lead trumpet Jeff Holmes, there's "Silver Streak Shuffle" in the Thad Jones vein, then "Of One's Own," an interesting 5/4 take on a simple melody with Holmes on trumpet and Mastroianni on soprano, and the high-flying opener, "Esprit," with its quotes and allusions.
In addition to the originals, Gwardyak's chart of "You Don't Know What Love Is" is a beautiful showcase for Tim Atherton's burnished trombone sound. Mastroianni's combination of Pure Imagination and Never Never Land is Latin-tinged rather than poignant - and it works.
The band members are basically the same as on the 2003 Christmas release. What keeps them together? I suspect the answer lies in the opening title, "Esprit." Spirit. You can feel it in their playing. I'll bet their rehearsals are fun.