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University of Nevada-Las Vegas Jazz and Commercial Music Division: Almost There (Vegas)

Review of a double-disc set featuring UNLV's various jazz ensembles

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Cover of UNLV Jazz & Commercial Music Division album Almost There (Vegas)
Cover of UNLV Jazz & Commercial Music Division album Almost There

UNLV’s 2022 jazz recording spotlights the Vegas program’s abundance of musical riches. Disc one features the Division of Jazz and Commercial Music’s premier big band, Jazz Ensemble 1, and the Joe Williams Scholarship Combo, an honors septet. Disc two showcases three other groups plus a closing track by the Williams honors combo. The imprint from undergraduate and grad students as composers, arrangers, and soloists is deep throughout.

The 10-track big-band segment opens with trumpeter Ricardo Arana’s spirited “Abundance,” featuring standout solos from pianist Micah Smith and trumpeter Harrison Collard. The ensemble’s take on Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra bassist Carlos Henriquez’s “2/3’s Adventure” blends its Latin feel with rich section work and a succession of fine solos from pianist Patrick Hogan, saxophonists FJ Rodriguez on alto and Edward Sarabia on tenor, and the high-note artistry of lead trumpeter Kurt Tumbagahan.

Hogan, who graduated in May with a master’s degree, is featured on vocals on two originals, the moody “Appassionata” and the teasing gem “You’re Gonna Get Me in Trouble.” He’s back at the piano on “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” the first of two Duke Ellington classics here. The call-and-response section work is outstanding, as are solos from Hogan, clarinetist Chris Ellis, and the teasing trumpets of Collard, Dan Foster, and Aries Harper. The band’s moodier take on Duke’s ballad “Solitude” features Max Marquis on baritone sax and arranger Molly Redfield on bass. It’s a gentle beauty.

UNLV alumnus Kenny Rampton is featured on flugelhorn for guest singer Laura Taylor’s wistful original “Spellbound,” which was arranged by JE1 co-director Nathan Tanouye. Taylor, a Las Vegas resident for many years, is a longtime supporter of the UNLV jazz program. Alto saxophonist Rodriguez wrote and arranged “Nous Avons Changé,” a midtempo swinger that features trombonist Zach Guzman-Mejia, trumpeter Collard, and Amy Crosley on drums and vibes. The big band’s robust take on “Suburbia,” composed by UNLV alumnus Rachel Eckroth (currently pianist for St. Vincent and Rufus Wainwright), features a searing solo from guitarist Jaren Glick. JE1 concludes with the exquisite title track, another Arana original. It features Smith on piano, Rodriguez on alto sax, and Contemporary Jazz Ensemble member Cole Henriques on EWI.


The Joe Williams Scholarship Combo digs into originals by bassist Keegan Carter (“Destino de la Suerte”) and Hogan (“The Eighty Five”), as well as Rodriguez’s arrangement of the Los Angeles-based jazz/alternative R&B trio Moonchild’s song “Money.” All three reveal the tight vibe and interplay of this smaller honors combo. Singer Gary Fowler joins on the soulful Moonchild tune. Hogan’s clever “The Eighty Five” has a bop-standard quality. Its ensemble horn lines and solos from Hogan himself, trombonist Kirby Galbraith, Collard, and Rodriguez are right in the pocket.

Disc two of Almost There opens with UNLV’s Latin Jazz Ensemble. Director Uli Geissendoerfer’s Brazilian jazz-inspired “Oh, What a Day” starts gently with Micah Smith’s piano introduction, then grad student Lara Vivian Smith’s vocal interlude teases its uptempo transition. It burns mightily thanks to Crosley’s drumming and Rodriguez’s soaring alto solo. Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” as arranged by Sarabia, is a dreamy vocal feature for Kailyn Richards with gentle support from Kennedy McClendon on guitar and Rodriguez on flute. Late Puerto Rican bandleader Noro Morales’ “Maria Cervantes” receives a robust charanga treatment; featuring Crosley on vibes along with violinists Aolani Aguirre and Lauren Cordell, the band celebrates its deep Cuban flavor. The LJE segment finishes with pianist and longtime Vegas faculty member Alex Clements’ “Emily’s Dream,” a playful song inspired by his daughter’s free spirit. This destejos, based on Afro-Peruvian rhythms, features Guzman-Mejia on cajon. Percussionist Pepe Jimenez, who co-directed the ensemble, provides the intro, setting up an extended vocal solo from Fowler and a teasing, multi-faceted melodic exploration by the full band.

The Contemporary Jazz Ensemble covers material stretching from R&B to the avant garde. Amanda Ketterer’s arrangement of Angela Bofill’s “The Only Thing I Would Wish For” is a bouncy celebration featuring the arranger’s vocals and soloist interplay by trumpeter Surafeel Tamre, trombonist Galbraith, and flutist Robert Mitchell. Sun Ra’s energetic big-band staple “Enlightenment” was arranged by Tamre and pianist Sergio Gamboa. Tenor saxophonist Ian Cruz sets its layered, adventurous tone. Los Angeles-based pianist and bandleader Jacob Mann wrote the funky “Baby Carrots,” which Mitchell arranged for this session. He’s featured on clarinet with Galbraith on trombone and Aguirre on violin. Kenny Wheeler’s rich composition “For Jan,” from his eight-movement The Sweet Time Suite, features trumpeter Tamre, baritone saxophonist Henriques, and tenor saxophonist Cason Allen. Galbraith arranged this modern big-band adventure.


Studio Scarlet contributed two tracks. “Words,” composed by Anders Edenroth from the Swedish a cappella combo the Real Group, showcases the gorgeous harmonies of the full vocal sextet without instrumental support. A rhythm section joins on Horace Silver’s “Peace.” Soprano Zoe Conrad and tenor Thomas Bradley Calvin are featured soloists on this classic jazz ballad. The Joe Williams Scholarship Combo closes the project with Silver’s playfully uptempo “The St. Vitus Dance.” Fowler is the featured singer. Robust solos from Rodriguez, Galbraith, Collard, Sarabia, and Hogan follow.

Learn more about Almost There on Bandcamp