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The BJA Big Band’s second annual concert, reviewed

Director Dr. Anthony Villa conducts the BJA Big Band at its second annual concert. Photo by Kristin Faatz

by Bob Jacobson

For its second annual concert, on September 11th at Loyola University, the Baltimore Jazz Alliance Big Band (BJABB) led off with “4th and F,” written and arranged by its director, Dr. Anthony Villa. I’m sorry that I can’t report on that piece, because Dr. Villa was so punctual that I missed half of the tune by entering at 7:03 p.m. Next up was Benny Russell’s “Bass Solo,” a tune very reminiscent of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, with strong solos by Jake Leckie on bass, Eric Heavner on trumpet and Justin Taylor on piano. The only downside here was that Heavner’s excellent trumpet solo was a bit overshadowed toward the end by the loudness of other horns, something that was to recur a couple more times in the course of the evening.

“My Funny Valentine” was the first of two standards played by BJABB that evening, this one a very straightforward arrangement by Dr. Reppard Stone, with lush backgrounds provided by the sax section throughout. Fortunately, Dr. Stone, formerly of Delaware State University, Baltimore City Public Schools and Howard University, was in the house. Stone’s “Tale of Two Cities,” written for Howard’s “A” Jazz Band, was next on the bill. Rootsy and hard-swinging, it too reminded one of Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. Dr. Stone responded with a raised fist salute to the performance, which featured solos by John Lamkin II on trumpet and Andy Dagilis on tenor sax.

Just before the intermission, the band gave us their treatment of another standard, Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa,” arranged by Mike Kamuf, played a “few clicks faster,” according to Dr. Villa, than the high school jazz band for which it was commissioned. This exciting version featured strong bass interludes from Leckie, a Mark Osteen tenor sax solo that ranged from wild to gutbucket, and quintessential big band drumming from Mark St. Pierre (imagine a combination of Art Blakey and Billy Cobham).

During intermission I was able to talk with Dr. Stone, who said, “The music he [Villa] is presenting is history. This is music without amplification” (which he meant in a good way). “This music is performed as a group, with strong sections. In this music there’s not so much emphasis on individuals.” He complimented the tight rhythm section and bemoaned the fact that “You don’t see pianos with eighty-eight keys now,” clearly pleased to hear Justin Taylor playing the genuine article, unamplified.

Before discussing the second half of the program, I want to emphasize that BJABB’s specialty is works by Baltimore-area composer and/or arrangers. They returned with two pieces by Paul Faatz, a Berklee grad and coordinator of ensembles at Peabody, who also contributed two pieces to last year’s concert. “Cool Running” is a waltz featuring intricate sax parts, but that section played like a well-oiled machine. Alto saxophonist Brian Robertson, a graduate of Loyola University and Towson University, delivered a clear, interesting story, as in each of his solos. St. Pierre alternated strong, precise solo statements with the large ensemble of horns. Faatz’s “Lizard Boogie” is a deeply-felt slow blues with plenty of gospel underneath. Faatz himself took a soulful solo on baritone sax. Heavner offered great growls and other mute effects that would have pleased The Duke, and trombonist Brian Priebe presented another of his clear, pleasing solos.

Todd Marcus’s arrangements of Orrin Evans’s “Prayer for Columbine” and of his own “Inheritance” rounded out the program. Starting with a slow prayer-like section, the former piece increased in both speed and intricacy. Anthem-like calls from the trumpets brought forth responses from the saxes. Steve Scheinberg gave us a terrific alto sax solo and fellow saxophonists Robertson and Dagilis provided an exciting duet for the piece’s climax. “Inheritance” offered everything from simple, Middle Eastern chant-like themes and Afro-Cuban rhythms to swing, again featuring driving, captivating work by drummer St. Pierre.

Dr. Villa deserves a lot of credit for increasing the diversity of the band since last summer. More importantly, it’s amazing how much this band has accomplished since mid-June. Not only do they deliver sophisticated, at times complex, material with polish and expertise, but they play with a spirit to match.

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