The University of Toronto’s student big band is a mighty 19-piece ensemble with traditional instrumentation augmented by a pair of French horns. The resulting sound is crisp, lush, and able to tackle a wide range of musical moods. On this outing, the orchestra honors one of Canada’s greatest arrangers before delving into seven very different student-composed or -arranged tunes.
Embargo opens with the late Rob McConnell’s arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” which became the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s signature tune. This intricate version features solos from trombonist Nick Adema and tenor saxophonist Geoff Claridge. Bassist Evan Gratham establishes the foundation for grad student Hannah Barstow’s swinging, melodic gem “Medium Blue,” which features saxophonists Zach Griffin on alto and Jacob Chung on tenor. Trumpeter Ben Frost’s arrangement of Vancouver-based Brad Turner’s teasing “Over My Head” features Claridge on clarinet, Gratham, and Adema. Claridge’s writing chops get an extended display on the ethereal original “Apollo,” stretching nearly 10 minutes and featuring intertwined solos by the composer and Frost on trumpet.
The wistful “Summer’s Over,” composed by guitarist and U of T grad student Jesse Marshall, is a fine spotlight for Chung and trombonist Charlotte McAffee-Brunner, who turn in spirited back-to-back solos. Griffin’s “Undiagnosed” sandwiches lush balladry around a frenetic, let-your-hair down moment for the ensemble’s horn players; the soloing here comes from Griffin, trumpeter Kaelin Murphy, and drummer Jacob Slous. Pianist Anthony D’Alessandro’s swinging arrangement of the Randy Weston standard “Hi Fly” is a terrific ensemble showcase. Solos from D’Alessandro, trumpeter Christian Antonacci, alto saxophonist Griff Vona, and Slous are accented by ensemble counterpoint. Trombonist Vonne Aguda wrote the closer, which is the recording’s atmospheric title track. “Embargo” features the searing guitar artistry of Julien Bradley-Combs and a lengthy horn solo by the composer.
This is a solid follow-up to 2017’s Sweet Ruby Suite, which the Gordon Foote-directed band recorded with two special guests: saxophonist Dave Liebman and singer Norma Winstone.