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University of North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band: Lab 2017/Legacy: Neil Slater at North Texas (North Texas Jazz)

Review of two albums celebrating the respected university ensemble's 70th anniversary

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Cover of Lab 2017 by the University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band
Cover of Lab 2017 by the University of North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band

This is a milestone—the 50th annual release from UNT’s premier jazz performance unit. And there’s even more reason to celebrate: The 2016-17 academic year was also the 70th anniversary of the North Texas jazz program.

The One O’Clock Lab Band’s 2017 recording features the always-tight, always-robust big band performing three jazz warhorses, four student-penned pieces, one each from new director Alan Baylock and longtime UNT composition professor Rich DeRosa, plus a spirited finale from the Don Menza songbook. Tenor saxophonist Brandon Moore wrote one track, arranged three more, and is featured soloist on DeRosa’s gently swinging “Roundabout.” Baylock’s original, “Old School,” features an old-fashioned tenor sax battle between Moore and Brian Stark.

The most ambitious tune is Stark’s three-section “Myself When I Am Mingus,” which stretches more than 13 minutes and is as exuberant and funky as anything in the Mingus Dynasty book. Its intimate adagio section showcases pianist Henry Dickhoff and alto player Kyle Bellaire. Undergraduate jazz major Kyle Myers wrote “Tomorrow Morning,” and its soaring musical panorama, enhanced by the wordless vocals of Kara Walton, has a beautiful Pat Metheny feel.

Dickhoff’s B-3 organ work on Moore’s arrangement of “I’m Beginning to See the Light” underscores this smoking Duke Ellington piece. Guitarist Jack Roben is featured on a Stefon Harris arrangement of Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High.” Menza’s “Dizzyland” is a high-octane showcase for the band’s five trumpeters: Josh Kauffman, Brian Fincher, Nick Owsik, Evan Templeton and Luke Wingfield, who do both Menza and tune namesake Dizzy Gillespie proud.

Cover of <I>Legacy: Neil Slater at North Texas</I> by the University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band
Cover of Legacy: Neil Slater at North Texas by the University of North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band

The lavish four-disc boxed set Legacy is ambitious and then some. It contains, in chronological order, all 35 compositions and two arrangements that Neil Slater wrote for the One O’Clock Lab Band during, and for five years after, his 27-year tenure as leader of the group and Head of Jazz Studies. He “retired” in 2008, after which UNT split his job into two separate positions; he remains a professor emeritus. The set concludes with “Neil,” DeRosa’s Grammy-nominated tribute composition that appeared on Lab 2015.

Slater’s writing is marked by both elegance and swing, no matter what its inspiration, and the top-notch band adds fire through crisp section work and the solos of its many members over the years (a large number of whom have gone on to pro music careers, including drummer Ari Hoenig, trumpeter Justin Stanton, bassist Tony Scherr, guitarist Pete McCann, and saxophonist Dave Pietro). One of the finest tracks is “Values,” written for the university’s centennial in 1990 and recorded in 1991; a bridge between classical, jazz and blues forms, it features Steve Williams on tenor saxophone and Kevin Watt on flugelhorn. Slater’s arrangements of “My Foolish Heart” and “Lead On, O King Eternal” were part of a 1994 recording project honoring Gene Hall, who was hired in 1947 to start UNT’s jazz degree curriculum, then known as a “dance band” program. “My Foolish Heart” features Luis Hernandez, now with the Airmen of Note, on alto sax, while Jami Dauber (the One O’Clock Lab Band’s first female trumpeter) and Scott Harrell are the soloists on the gospel-infused “Lead On….”

As part of the 70th-anniversary UNT Jazz celebration, the program also released three other sets. Perseverance features eight of DeRosa’s compositions and arrangements, recorded by the One O’Clock and Two O’Clock Lab Bands between 2011 and 2016. The three-CD set Airstream Artistry features 40 selections that the Two O’Clock Lab Band recorded under Jim Riggs from 1991 to 2008. Nice! is a 2-CD set compiling Jay Saunders’ work as the Two O’Clock Lab Band leader from 2008 to 2014.

Originally Published