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University of Nevada-Las Vegas Jazz and Commercial Music Program: Looking Up (Vegas)

A review of the latest two-disc release from the program's premier big band and eight smaller, varied jazz combos

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University of Nevada-Las Vegas Jazz and Commercial Music Program: Looking Up
The cover of Looking Up by University of Nevada-Las Vegas Jazz and Commercial Music Program

This year’s UNLV project spotlights Jazz Ensemble 1, the program’s premier big band, on disc one, while disc two showcases eight smaller, varied jazz combos. Because of the pandemic’s impact, most student musicians were recorded at home, with their individual tracks stitched together in the studio.

Carlos Mata-Alvarez, a UNLV adjunct professor of jazz composition, penned the Latin-tinged opener “Quick Deet,” a burner that sets a high bar for the music that follows. Trumpeter Kenny Rampton is a special guest on two tracks, featured with pianist Patrick Hogan on Chick Corea’s “Tones for Joan’s Bones” and with bassist Keegan Carter on the Ellington/Strayhorn classic “Such Sweet Thunder.” Sammy Nestico’s arrangement of “Ill Wind” is a dark and moody feature for guest vocalist Laura Taylor, a singer/songwriter who’s been living in Las Vegas for many years. Bassist John Clayton’s robust “The Jazz Calling” showcases the ensemble with fine solos from trumpeter Ricardo Arana, pianist Micah Smith, and drummer Michael Hoffman. JE1 co-director Nathan Tanouye’s “The Hustle” rides a clever bass vamp with solo features for tenor saxophonist Edward Sarabia and drummer Amy Crosley.

Another Ellington classic, “Chinoiserie” from Duke’s Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, features this year’s project iron men, Hogan on piano and graduate assistant Brian Lawrence on tenor sax. Hogan also provided a playful, swinging arrangement of the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra hit “Green Eyes.” On his uptempo original “Powerout,” Hogan’s clever arrangement uses the horn sections to underscore the rhythm and melody.   JE1’s energetic big-band take on Joshua Redman’s R&B-flavored “Herbs and Roots” is a two-tenor feature for arranger Lawrence and Sarabia. The bopping strut of Lawrence’s beautiful “Claymont” features Tanouye on trombone and FJ Rodriguez on sax, braced by the horn sections. The-big band portion closes with an extended arrangement of Michel Petrucciani’s breezy samba “Looking Up” that has strong solos from Lawrence on flute, Smith on piano, and Harrison Collard on flugelhorn.

Disc two opens with two tracks from Vegas ’22, a Brazil ’66-styled group that grad student Hogan created and directs. His arrangements of “The Lamp Is Low,” the 1930s pop song that Laurindo Almeida transformed into a bossa nova, and “If Love Is Good to Me” both feature singers Amanda Ketterer and Kailyn Richards. The Vinnie Falcone Organ Quartet, with leader Brian Lawrence at the keyboards, digs deep into Oliver Jones’ gospel- and blues-tinged “Tippin’ Home from Sunday School” and drummer Zach Guzman Mejia’s extended arrangement of Jobim’s “Triste.” The latter features Joseph Schaben on tenor sax and Nick Lee’s nimble guitar artistry. UNLV’s Latin Jazz Ensemble performs Snarky Puppy keyboardist Shaun Martin’s uptempo “Madiba,” arranged here by violinist Peter Goomroyan, and Milton Nascimento’s “Vera Cruz,” which showcases singer Richards and violinist Lauren Codell.

The 11-member Contemporary Jazz Ensemble recorded British singer Laura Mvula’s “Sing to the Moon.” Reed player FJ Rodriguez arranged this cover and solos on clarinet; Ketterer adds layered vocals, which meld with some otherworldly keyboard effects from Caleb Clark. The Jazz Vocal Ensemble includes seven singers plus rhythm section. Its exploration of Sweets Edison and Jon Hendricks’ “Centerpiece” features Gary Fowler’s scat segment. UNLV’s all-woman Geri Allen Combo performs leader/bassist Molly Redfield’s arrangement of “Moonglow” with vocals from Patricia Thomas and keyboardist Lara Vivian Smith.

The Honors Trio—comprising pianist Hogan, bassist Ruben Van-Gundy, and drummer Hoffman—performs Hogan’s “You Are the Only Girl” (with the composer also featured on vocals) and Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.” The latter tune’s cohesive and inventive trio arrangement is one of this year’s project highlights. The Joe Williams Combo winds things down with Hogan and singer Fowler performing “Here’s to Life.” Shirley Horn first recorded this ode to growing old with grace in 1992, with Williams following two years later. It’s intimate and gorgeous, aside from some needless choral vocals that distract rather than enhance the mood.

University of Nevada-Las Vegas Jazz and Commercial Music Program: Dorian Dream (Vegas)