Like Shackleton's epic voyage of survival in Antarctica, one struggles to imagine the time, resources, social skill and organizational acumen necessary to lead a jazz orchestra. Even more mindboggling is the idea of stepping into the shoes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Jimmie Lunceford, transcribing their classic big band recordings, and performing them live on your orchestra's debut CD.
Yet, Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra directors Michael Brockman and Clarence Acox have proven themselves up to the task with the release of SRJO Live. A 11-track collection culled from various Seattle-area performances recorded over the last five years, SRJO Live is full of fine performances, but is perhaps most significant as a testament to the orchestra's innate sense of swing. In fact, SRJO veterans like Don Lanphere, Bill Ramsay and Floyd Standifer grew up in an era when swing was the thing in American popular music, and their contributions are evident on 1930s and Ű40s big band hits found on this disc, including Lunceford's "Stomp It Off," Basie's "Jumpin' at the Woodside," "Blue and Sentimental" and Ellington's "Happy Go Lucky Local," "Concerto for Cootie" and "Caravan."
While swing era standards are the SRJO's bread and butter, the orchestra is by no means one-dimensional. Gil Evans' 1960 arrangement of "Maids of Cadiz" features the rich, fluid tone of Jay Thomas' trumpet in a beautiful, command performance. "Isfahan" is another highlight. Following a choppy yet much-applauded piano introduction we hear the warm, full sound and sculpted legato phrasing of Brockman's alto, arcing and gliding, bending pitch into pitch in soulful interpretation of Strayhorn's bittersweet melody. An inspired orchestra lends support and, in the absence of superfluous alto runs or showy licks, four- and eight-beat rests inflate with delicious anticipation. "Caravan" ˝ with Acox's extended mallet-on-tom toms solo announcing the procession and setting the tempo ˝ is also rich in aural gems such as Robin Kutz's propulsive rhythm guitar, Marc Seales' sparse, tasteful piano comping, Dennis Haldane's jackalish laughter on muted trumpet, Bill Anthony's meteoric trombone languidly descending into the timeˇall this prior to the first horn solo (in the form of Brockman's exotic, whirling clarinet)! SRJO rocks Ellington's pyramid party; this is music a eunuch could feel.
Charles Mingus' 1959 testimonial "Better Get Hit in Your Soul" presents the orchestra with its greatest rhythmic challenge, skipping back and forth between hip-hoppity 6/8 and straight 4/4. While failing to capture the spiritual fervor of the original recordingˇhollers and handclaps not withstandingˇthe ensembles hold up well for most of the tune's seven-plus minutes, until losing intensity following an Acox drum solo in an anti-climactic rush-to-finish. Yet, given this admirable attempt at modern big band composition, one must credit Brockman and Acox for steering the SRJO out of its comfort zone and into uncharted musical waters. Taking chances with Mingus, Monk and even local composer William O. Smith (whose Concerto for Jazz Orchestra was commissioned by the SRJO and premiered in March) bodes well for the SRJO's future survival.