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National Jazz Ensemble: 1975-1976

In its four-year life in the mid-1970s, the National Jazz Ensemble under Chuck Israels’ direction helped set the standards for jazz repertory orchestras. The American Jazz Orchestra of the ’80s, the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall companies, the Chicago and Seattle repertory organizations of today, all owe much to the NJE and to the New York Jazz Repertory Ensemble, which existed for a short time in the ’70s.

The National Jazz Ensemble reflected Israels’ range of interests, restless energy and appreciation of continuity among eras of music. Israels enlisted long-established musicians to serve with his cadre of rising ones. In the trumpet section, Tom Harrell sat next to Jimmy Maxwell, whose career began in the early 1930s. Trombone veteran Jimmy Knepper played alongside young Gerry Chamberlain. The NJE’s arrangements comprised meticulously transcribed classics as well as bold new pieces. Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp” (1926) shared the book with Dave Berger’s “Understanding Depression” (1974), and originals by Israels and Rod Levitt accompanied items from the oeuvres of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Oscar Pettiford and others. The ensemble members included unique soloists like Harrell, Knepper and the saxophonists Joe Romano, Sal Nistico and Gregory Herbert. At one point the rhythm section included bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin on the eve of their two decades in the Phil Woods quintet.

I remember the atmosphere of adventure and sense of enjoyment the NJE created in its New York rehearsals and concerts. Chiaroscuro Records captured those qualities in a single LP and a double set that have never, until now, been reissued on CD. This disc includes all but three of the tracks from those albums. In deciding what to leave out, Israels eliminated two impressive pieces of his own writing. He may have been too modest, but it is impossible to argue against what he retained. Highlights include Nistico’s solo in the Lester Young slot on Basie’s “Every Tub,” Bill Evans as guest soloist on Israels’ arrangement of Evans’ “Very Early,” Levitt’s stomping “His Master’s Voice,” Herbert’s alto and Dan Hayes’ trumpet on “Understanding Depression,” Lee Konitz’s brilliance on “Solar Complexes” and Harrell’s every solo.

Indeed, the entire album is a highlight of the decade in which the National Jazz Ensemble gave inspirational voice to the very idea of the jazz repertory orchestra. Its freshness is undiminished.

Originally Published