The University of Kentucky’s various jazz bands have a distinctive musical swagger, offering explosive energy from their many horns and surprises at every turn, along with a zest for tongue-in-cheek material. These projects only reinforce that fact.
On the Road opens with eight tracks that the 2017 ensemble recorded in preparation for its appearance at the 50th annual Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. The other five were recorded just before the 2011 band went to Europe for Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festival appearances. The opener, “When Ya Gotta Go, Ya Gotta Go!,” is a tenor battle for saxophonists Jonathan Barrett and Angela Ortega, while Bill Holman’s “Film at Eleven” and Rick Hirsch’s “Metroliner” feature high energy and well-crafted delicacy. Matt Catingub’s “Blues and the Abcessed Tooth” provides more of the same, as well as a whimsical title. Subtleties abound on “Caravan,” featuring Ortega on vocals and graduate assistant Ian Cruz on clarinet. The session’s most intriguing moments come during Barrett’s extended bassoon solo on “The Peacocks” and Cruz’s EWI feature on his arrangement of Russell Ferrante’s vintage Yellowjackets tune “Goin’ Home.”
Classic and a few contemporary big-band charts dominate the 2011 tracks: Frank Foster’s “Blues in Hoss’ Flat,” Hirsch’s “Catch Me If You Can,” Gordon Goodwin’s strutting “The Phat Pack,” Holman’s “Any Dude’ll Do,” and Don Menza’s burning “Time Check.” “The Phat Pack” features contrasting sax solos from Dieter Rice on tenor and Cruz on baritone. Faculty member Raleigh Dailey wrote and plays guest piano on a mysterious gem called “Stalking the Dread Moray Eel.” Credit the rhythm section’s plodding pace if this one has you looking over your shoulder at times.
Stinkin’ 3.0 is the third in a series of recordings by UK’s Mega-Sax ensembles, who were once told by a festival judge, “You guys don’t need no stinkin’ rhythm section,” hence the title—though the album could just as easily have been called The Joy of Sax, for that’s what emerges here on tracks featuring anywhere from four to nine saxophonists. Four cuts feature percussion, but the rest are all sax, with intricate arrangements and soulful solos. A quartet with Cruz (soprano and alto), Ortega (alto), Kirby Davis (tenor), and Jared Sells (baritone) is featured on a beautiful exploration of “Lush Life,” as well as Mike Mower’s “Ford Fiasco” and spirited “Kentucky Roastup”—Mower, who led the defunct sax quartet Itchy Fingers, has been a frequent contributor to UK jazz director Miles Osland’s Mega-Sax projects.
Guests Jeff Coffin, Jeff Driskill, and Tony Dagradi brought several original tunes for the Mega-Sax bands to explore. Coffin’s “Tall and Lanky”—arranged by Cruz, who earned his doctorate at UK last year and directed Mega-Sax 2—is a feature for Coffin (tenor) and Davis (alto). Driskill’s pieces include the laid-back “Blues and the Bent Side Key,” teasing “Straight Jacket,” and the premiere of his “A Change in the Gospel.” Dagradi’s “Sohana Sha Kirpal” is the session’s most robust track, with eight reed players and two percussionists supporting his plaintive tenor solo. He also contributed Stinkin’ 3.0’s up-tempo closer, “Sweet Faced Lie.”