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CD REVIEW: USU Jazz Orchestra - Europa
By Dan Cohen - 09/04/2014 - 11:53 AM EDT

Artist: USU Jazz Orchestra
Album: Europa
Genre: Jazz
Sounds Like: Zappa, Big Band
Technical Grade: 10/10
Production/Musicianship Grade: 8/10
Best Songs: Run, The Grand Wazoo, Everything in its Right Place, Son of Orange County
CD Review:

When you receive a cd from a college music department, a big band recording, you tend to expect certain things. Dutiful, careful recreations of the carefree playing on canonical works of a bygone era.You feel an obligation to be respectful and encouraging, but you don't feel much of an urge to listen. I'm happy to report that Europa, the most recent offering by the Utah State University Jazz Orchestra under the direction of saxman Jon Gudmundson, is a rare and wild exception to that rule. Gudmundson and company have crafted a record that's exciting and musical and full of surprises. It's playful and funny and yet carries with it an urgent message, which can perhaps be summed up as: Look East, young woman (or man, or carbon-based life form)!

His claim, astutely argued in his liner notes (gotta love cds!) is that, as Jazz was born in an America unburdened by the weight of European musical tradition, so now Europe is creating, and has created, it's own jazz culture likewise unburdened by the long shadow of American masters, from Tatum, Goodman and Armstrong to the cool era of Davis, Coltrane, Coleman and the rest.

It's persuasively argued on the recording, too, which not only showcases European compositions, but presents more or less familiar American and British tunes, by artists from Frank Zappa to Radiohead to Tom Waits, in clean, incisive, exciting new arrangements by leading European arranger/composers. The result is anything but predictable. The album starts with a Run by Stefan Schultze- a moody, spectral piece, slow-developing yet strangely compelling, with wonderful, weird harmonies ideally suited to a horn ensemble. The Grand Wazoo, the first Zappa composition they undertake, has a few muddy ensemble sections (this is Zappa at his thorniest) but is distinguished by the fine trumpet work of James Canty. Everything in its Right Place is a Radiohead tune I'm not familiar with, but this arrangement is full of twists and turns. Arranger Ben Cottrell uses the band in novel and surprising ways, beginning the next tune, Just, also by Radiohead, with an odd understated drum solo. Son of Orange County is another Zappa tune, ably arranged by Niclas Rydh, with stellar vocal interplay by Anna Khachikyan and Sandon Mayhew. This flows seamlessly into Zappa's More Trouble Every Day, distinguished by a raucous guitar intro.

Gudmundson and his arrangers are not afraid to use odd instrument pairings, vocals, and carefully calibrated ensembles and dynamics to create a big band sound that is fresh and modern, sometimes sounding like Clash of the Titans, other times like a small ensemble. What could have sounded like a dry exercise turns out to be one of the most exciting jazz albums I've heard in years. Kudos also to Tim Moes for mixing and mastering to create a balanced, warm but also crystal clear sound where they all sound great together and yet all individual soloists are heard-- not an easy task in an ensemble of this size. Nice packaging as well, from cover art to cd design. One curiosity: no website mentioned. Give listeners (and thus newly-minted USU fans) a place to go! But that's minor (to everyone but USU marketing dept).

But Jon Gudmundson, USU Jazz Orchestra director-- eager to give liner note credit to all arrangers, composers, musicians, technicians, & everyone else involved in the project (where’s the shout out to receptionists, reed manufacturers, dog walkers? Just kidding I applaud your appreciation)-- no doubt deserves some credit too. He's shepherded into being an album that's not only great to listen to, but has a distinct and unique place in the ongoing discussion of what jazz is, where it came from, and where it's going.

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