These two Mountaineer recordings are poles apart in concept and configurations— one septet and one big band—yet they combine to make a very fine showcase for the WVU jazz studies program.
Celebrating 40 Years of Jazz at WVU is a septet recording from 2018 that features a half-dozen original compositions, one apiece from six of its instrumentalists. Saxophonist Tanner Davis’ “Jocassee” is breezy and laid-back, though guitarist Collin Faulkenberry fires it up a notch with his nimble solo. Saxophonist Chad Williams contributed “Interrobang,” which has a playful, cinematic feel that fuels his extended tenor solo.
“Even Now We Remember” is a samba from trombonist Khalid Gray. His robust horn solo over the ensemble leads into a teasing light response from pianist Michael Jones, who shifts with ease between acoustic and electric piano and B-3 throughout the session. Jones also composed the disc’s clever gem, “Bird Song.” Ensemble horn lines ride over a repeating 13-note melody that sets the tone for the solos that follow. The tenor sax fire here rides over a B-3 carpet before Jones takes the spotlight with a full-blown organ solo, then the melodic hook returns for the final bars. Drummer Wes Greer contributed “4 Minus 1,” a stop-and-start teaser that features solos from trombonist Gray and Jones’ B-3 over its hard-driving beat.
Guitarist Faulkenberry’s “Under a Microscope” features a beautiful mood-setting opening and close from bassist Allison L’Ecuyer that segues to some electric piano and a unison horn exploration of its pensive melody. The composer’s guitar artistry here is adventurous, setting up a fine tenor response.
Sum of All the Parts from WVU’s 18-member Jazz Ensemble 1 was recorded remotely on the students’ laptops in 2021 and stitched together in the studio; hence the project title. Jazz Studies director and JE1 leader Jared Sims wrote and arranged five of the seven pieces for this pandemic project, which has a decided Latin tinge. He and fellow faculty members John Bagnato (guitar) and Robert Sears (trumpet) are guest soloists on select tracks.
Boston-based trombonist Brian Thomas’ high-energy tune “The Iguana” starts the musical ball rolling. It opens and closes with a playful flute feature, sandwiching an abundance of horn-section interplay. The trumpeters mix things up with high-energy solos from CJ Rhen and Alan Atkinsmith, setting up a vigorous interlude from Sims on baritone sax. Sims’ “Samba Saudade” features beautiful ensemble playing, supplemented by the World Music department’s Brazilian Ensemble, abundant with call-and-response passages. Bagnato’s dark guitar solo accentuates the composition’s feeling of longing, which continues through Owen Boachie’s trombone solo.
“Blues Diffusion” features high-energy solos from Brenden Stilwell on tenor sax, Atkinsmith on trumpet, and composer Sims on alto sax. Late composer/arranger Sammy Nestico’s gentle swinger “Prime Time” opens with a gorgeous solo from pianist Jones before horn-section interplay leads into fine spotlights for trombonist Boachie and Stilwell on tenor sax.
Percussion-rich “Conga Street Beat” and “Samba Afoxe” are joyous romps that feature horn accents over the Latin rhythms, plus spirited solos from Boachie, Stilwell (alto on the first, tenor on the second), and trumpeters Atkinsmith (“Conga Street Beat”) and Rhen (“Samba Afoxe”). The World Music department’s African Ensemble joins the big band on “Conga Street Beat” and the Brazilian ensemble returns on “Samba Afoxe.”
The gospel-tinged “Neo Soul Lullaby” closes the session. A digital delay on the horn section sets the mood and then cushions Sears’ crisp, gently soaring trumpet solo. That horn treatment almost sounds like an accordion or melodica sneaked into the ensemble mix. It’s a nice touch.