Any orchestra that professes to establish a new standard had better be able to back that up. Happily for the listener, on its debut recording, Waltz About Nothing, Chicago's New Standard Jazz Orchestra can—and does. In a little more than two years, the NSJO has arisen as a worthy successor to one of the more exemplary ensembles ever to grace the Windy City, trumpeter Rob Parton's JazzTech Big Band. The equivalence seems predestined when one notes that no less than nine members of the NSJO—including co-leaders Ken Partyka and Andy Baker —are former members of Parton's cutting-edge ensemble.
Seven of the album's eleven numbers were written by NSJO members, and they are admirable in every respect, as are the others—Ellington / Strayhorn's "Star Crossed Lovers," Mike Plog's "Bu's Groove," Burt Bacharach's "Close to You" (arranged by Chris Madsen) and Miles Davis' "Milestones" (by Tom Garling). Baker composed the seductive "Waltz About Nothing" and "Samba for Someone," Garling "Metamorphosis," "This One's for Sturm" and "Sedentary Motion." Alto Madsen is showcased on his composition "Spring and Fall," tenor John Wojciechowski on his "Lexicon," fellow tenor Mark Colby on "Sturm." Partyka solos on "Samba for Someone" and "Sedentary Motion," Baker on "Samba" and "Waltz." Mention should also be made of Tom Matta's splendid charts, "Star Crossed Lovers" and "Bu's Groove" (on which trumpeter Marquis Hill and pianist Dan Murphy shine).
Other world-class improvisers who live up to the name are trombonists Garling and Tim Coffman, baritone Mark Hiebert and trumpeter BJ Cord. Murphy, bassist Tim Fox and drummer Todd Howell comprise the orchestra's hard-working rhythm section. Brass and reeds are sharp, assertive and tight as a drum, all the more impressive as Waltz About Nothing was recorded in a studio, without headphones or electronic enhancement, in a single day. As big bands continue to fade into the woodwork, it is comforting to know that Chicago remains home to one of the best, a forward-looking orchestra that gives rise to a new standard for those who follow.