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University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble: The Early Years… / …’Til Now (Mark Masters)

Review of two albums compiling historical recordings by various editions of the ensemble

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Cover of University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble album The Early Years...
Cover of University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble album The Early Years…

These two compilations, originally released in 2019, celebrated two milestones for the University of Kentucky’s Mega-Sax jazz ensembles: 50 years since the first band was formed, and 30 years since reed player Miles Osland became program director. These big bands are robust in their instrumentation and put a fine spin on things, whether refreshing the classics or digging into newer material.

The Early Years… includes two or three tracks apiece from five different Wildcats bands recorded between 1979 and 1995. The 1979 band’s take on Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” is a joyous romp that encourages biting horn solos from the saxophonists and teasing ensemble segments that lead into Steve Walters’ tasty trumpet solo. Tom Garvin’s “Quiet Lady” is a breezy gem showcasing the ensemble horn lines. The 1989 edition of Mega-Sax is featured on two tracks: the Matt Harris composition “Harco Shuffle,” a spotlight for the range and ideas of trumpeter Pete Bellino, and Bob Mintzer’s Latin-tinged big-band classic “In the Eighties,” which features pianist Bob Boguslaw.

The material from 1991 includes Paul Ferguson’s “Buckeye Blues” and Mintzer’s challenging Elvin Jones homage “Elvin’s Mambo,” which both feature trombonist David Henderson. Trumpeter Todd Hastings adds complementary heated solos on the mambo. The 1992 band, with some overlapping personnel from the prior year, is featured on trumpeter David Hummel’s teasing arrangement of the Duke Ellington chestnut “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and low-brass player and composer Norlan Bewley’s spirited “Hightop.”

The 1995 ensemble updates three jazz classics: Johnny Hodges’ “Jeep’s Blues” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan,” with shimmering solos from alto sax player John Richardson, and a plaintive Tom Kubis arrangement of Woody Herman’s theme song “Early Autumn” that features tenor saxophonist Brian Murray. The Early Years… closes with the 1991 band’s “Cruisin’ for a Bluesin’.” This version of the Andy Weiner-penned Maynard Ferguson staple features two faculty soloists, Osland on alto sax and former program director Vince DiMartino on trumpet. With the big band’s fine cushion, they sure wail here.

Cover of University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble album <I srcset=
…’Til Now” width=”787″ height=”800″> Cover of University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble album …’Til Now

The 2-CD compilation …’Til Now includes between one and seven tracks apiece from University of Kentucky Jazz Ensembles recorded in 1998, 2004, 2009, 2014, 2017, and 2019. This material mostly draws from more contemporary big-band composers; two vintage pieces from Duke Ellington and Frank Foster are included for good measure.The 1998 band gets things started with Don Menza’s gentle swinger “Blues for Uncommon Kids,” ensemble member Bryan Murray’s robust “Red Reflection,” Bob Florence’s “Tenors, Anyone?” (both featuring tenor saxophonists Murray and Corey Lareau), Bill Holman’s “No Joy in Mudville,” and the Americana classic “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Osland joins the fun on the latter tune on soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxes.


The 2004 edition tackles saxophonist Mike Tomaro’s gentle ballad “A Sideward Glance,” featuring Rudy Brannon on alto sax; Gordon Goodwin’s “Mama Llama Samba”; three Astor Piazzolla pieces—“Michelangelo,” “Tres Minutos Con Realidad” and the exotic “Libertango”—all arranged by Fred Sturm (with Osland guesting on flute on “Libertango”); trombonist Nick Lane’s high-flying “Take That!,” revealing trumpeter T.J. Tesh’s firepower; and Alan Baylock’s “Two Seconds to Midnight.” The 2009 band is featured on one piece, “There and Back,” from its recording GO! The Music of Bob Mintzer. The composer, a guest artist that year, is featured with baritone sax player Joe Carucci. The 2014 Mega-Sax edition tackles Raleigh Dailey’s mixed-mood gem “Spook Country” and Mike Mower’s funky, South African township-flavored “The Easter Islander.”

The 2017 band’s contributions include Weiner’s blistering “When Ya Gotta Go, Ya Gotta Go!,” powered by drummer Nick Bolcholz and highlighted by Jonathan Barrett and Angie Ortega’s dueling tenor sax solos; Russell Ferrante’s “Goin’ Home,” featuring arranger Ian Cruz on EWI; and composer/arranger Matt Catingub’s playfully titled “Blues and the Abscessed Tooth,” an uptempo showcase for pianist Coty Taylor and the interplay of trombonists Brad Myers and Denver Pascua. The 2017 edition is also featured on the Ellington band classic “Caravan,” with Ortega featured on dusky vocals and Cruz shifting to clarinet; a gently swinging take on Foster’s early-1960s piece “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” that spotlights Pascua’s trombone artistry; and Goodwin’s “The Phat Pack,” with its intricate saxophone lines.

…’Til Now winds down with four tracks from the 2019 University of Kentucky big band. They include a Goodwin arrangement of film, television, and game composer Michael Giacchino’s “The Incredibles” featuring guitarist Alan Robinson’s incendiary lines; Dailey’s gently loping “Gratitude,” which showcases trombonist Michael DeSousa; and L.A. bandleader Dave Slonaker’s “Duelity,” highlighted by an extended horn duel between trumpeter David Vest and alto saxophonist Kirby Davis that rides over the band’s layered cushion. The final track, saxophonist Rick Hirsch’s Japanese-flavored “Miles’ Big Band Dojo,” features guest artists Dailey on piano, Osland on flute, and DiMartino on trumpet.