After hearing the opening track, a rendition of Benny Carter's "Miss Missouri" that is so by-the-numbers and competent to the point of sterility, one could be excused for assuming that the ensuing contents of this CD would be more of the same evidence of university students regurgitating textbook versions of traditional jazz arrangements. Happily, and much to the credit of leader/director Chris Merz, the students - and listening audience - are instead heartily challenged thereafter, proving themselves time and again to be far beyond any traces of precocity within an extensive variety of settings.
Besides the indisputably mature, professional level at which the individual players perform, many of the compositions - from a similarly amateur source - shine as well: Jim McNeely's "Blue Note" is a highly advanced and engaging piece of music, as is Merz's "The Beautiful One." Most noteworthy of all is Kyle Novak's "Momento," a contemplative piece which at first doesn't sound necessarily amenable to a large-ensemble treatment, but which ends up impressing as much for its evocative, inventive arrangements as it does for the beautiful song it is in itself. Its introduction features a magnificent interplay between pianist Vladan Milenkovic, bassist Eric Krieger, and guitarist Travis Stivick - a high point of the disc. Milenkovic is as steady a hand as could be desired throughout; his tasteful, understated playing is an essential consistency that strengthens the balance of so many competing instruments. None of the soloists are showy, but nearly all are amply talented.
Of particular note are saxophonist Nathaniel Gao, easily the most expressive player of the group, and fluegelhornist Brandon Lewis, who for good reason is featured prominently on both of the songs which display the group in a more diminished context ("Memento" and "The Beautiful One"). The traditional big band exercises are only given further allowances on the Rogers-Hart standard "Where or When" and on a second Carter song, "Rompin' At The Reno," which is satisfying in that it presents the group really swinging for the first and only time on the compilation.
An emphasis on swing, however, is not what these performances are about. The creative extensions of big band arrangements through modern forms are most appreciably demonstrated on Joey Sellers' "Skinny Window Stomp," which sounds influenced by the avant-garde work of John Zorn, and the concluding track "Arenas," an urgent and dramatic work of originality by Robert Washut. Here, Milenkovic finally steps out with a classically-tinged solo, and altoist Gao tears it up amidst the swelling, intricate layers of reeds and brass. With "Momento," Chris Merz has successfully directed his young ensemble convincingly through both the traditional framework and the forward-looking possibilities of big band.
Everything, from the quality of recording to the clarity of the arrangements to the refinement of the musicians, is spot-on. Perhaps it's a lamentable fact that urban locales and their nightclubs are no longer the breeding grounds for jazz musicians, but the inspired instruction that obviously is occurring in places even as seemingly remote as Cedar Falls, Iowa gives one assurance that the legacy of jazz is being proffered as something with a future and not just a closed past.