The Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra, now seven years old, has produced its second superlative album of contemporary jazz, a cosmopolitan enterprise showcasing impressive compositions and arrangements by musical director Daniel Barry; Englishwoman Hazel Leach, co-leader of the European-based United Women's Orchestra; and Jill Townsend, one of Canada's most talented writers in the big-band genre.
As on its previous recording, Dreamcatcher (OA2, 2004), SWOJO leaves no doubt that it can play with anyone, readily mastering charts that would test even the most battle-hardened ensemble. The careful use of shading and dynamics is especially remarkable, as all but one of the eight selections were recorded in concert with no safety net or second chances. The exception is Barry's "Checkered Demon" which, unlike the others, ends with no applause. The album is so cleanly recorded, however, that the absence of an audience response is the only avenue by which to separate the concert selections from the lone in-studio track.
Barry, the orchestra's music director since its inception, appreciates a Latin beat, a fondness that is conspicuous on three of his four compositions, even though the rhythms are often gentle and understated. Again, the anomaly is "Checkered Demon," a bluesy charmer on which tenor saxophonist Cynthia Mullis excels. "Demon" follows the supple opener, "Encontro das Ąguas" (Meeting of the Waters), whose lone soloist is trumpeter Barry himself.
Leach weighs in with "The Tulip Wonder," a lyrical swinger featuring trombonist Jennifer Kellogg that opens calmly and builds in intensity, and the meditative "Self Portrait," nicely sung by Greta Matassa alongside splendid solos by trumpeter Sarah Nelson and tenor Tina Richerson. As with most modern songs, I haven't a clue as to what the lyrics mean, but they seem quite serious and profound.
Townsend's charts appeared previously on her excellent album, Tales from the Sea (Pagetown, 2003). The first is her own enchanting composition, "Waltz of the Jellyfish," the second the lovely standard "Old Folks," a luminous arrangement on which Mullis is again showcased, this time on alto sax.
Bassist Rachael Contorer, alto Lisa Gordanier and pianist Ann Reynolds are the soloists on "Jellyfish," which precedes Barry's powerful "Mighty Urubamba," "Old Folks" and his softly flowing "Miraflores." Nelson, drummer Jeremy Jones and percussionist Michelle McGowan are admirable on the former, Jones and Richerson ditto on the latter.
In sum, the inescapable verdict is that SWOJO has earned another blue ribbon. Recommended without pause.