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First off, let’s get this out of the way – I am a proud alum of DePaul University. Located on Chicago’s North Side, DePaul has established itself as an anchor of jazz education in the Midwest, and Dr. Bob Lark, who directs the Jazz Ensemble, has put the group on the national jazz map through a series of excellent recordings released over the course of the last 20 years. Over that span, the group has recorded both live and in studio with many of the greatest names in jazz, including Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Tom Harrell, Bobby Shew, Phil Woods, Slide Hampton, Jim McNeely and others. A lot of students have come and gone through DePaul’s program in that span of time, but the group’s consistent and excellent performances have never wavered.
DePaul’s most recent effort, recorded in May 2014 and released this winter, is “Dearborn Station.” An all-around excellent album, it exemplifies many of the characteristics that separate DePaul’s band from other University bands. First, this album is recorded LIVE at Chicago’s historic Jazz Showcase, meaning that any blemishes or errors the band makes (although they are few and far between) are on full display. While others might shy away from the challenges of a live recording, this band wholly embraces them. Sure, the music is not executed flawlessly (although it’s awfully close!), but the energy from both the students and the guest, in this case Randy Brecker, more than make up for any slight imperfections. Secondly, even though the focus of most of the album is on Randy – he’s given plenty of solo space in which to work – the students receive more than a share of the spotlight. Student arrangements make up the bulk of the repertoire on the record, and the other soloists consistently play excellent and engaging solos.
The talent of those students, the quality of the student arrangements, and Brecker’s virtuosic trumpet playing are all fully on display from the first note the band plays. The CD opens with an intricate student arrangement of Brecker’s tune “Squids”, arranged by the band’s tenor saxophonist Andrew Janak. Janak’s arrangement sticks pretty close to the original tune, and is easily my favorite piece on the album – it grooves hard, and Brecker (with full reverb) sounds phenomenal. Janak himself takes a solo on the tune and also crushes it.
The next tune on the album is another student arrangement, done by a former student, Joe Clark, now on faculty at Northwestern University. The tune is Thelonius Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”, and the Ellington-inspired arrangement is a virtual clinic in writing for big band. The 2nd line groove and the orchestration of the melody takes an old tune and makes it sound fresh, while there is plenty of room for the soloists to be showcased. The tune doesn’t get bogged down or succumb to the dreaded arranger’s “copy and paste.” All of the soloists sounds great – Brent Griffin’s solo hints at other Monk tunes, and Brian Scarborough’s exciting solo paves the way for Brecker, who uses his choruses to demonstrate just about every way you can approach the changes to this tune.
Of course you would expect Brecker to sound great – and he does, in complete command of the instrument and the music – but the band shines consistently on the rest of the tunes on the album. From the hip-hop inspired arrangement of “On Green Dolphin Street”, Paul McKee’s classic arrangement of “Infant Eyes”, or the classic Basie swing tune “Blues in Hoss Flat”, the band sounds great. The time feel on the album is consistently fantastic, and indeed the rhythm section is definitely the highlight of the group. Also worth mentioning (because I’m a sympathetic lead trumpet player) is the outstanding playing by Marques Carroll – nailing the lead trumpet solo in “Infant Eyes” and taking an excellent solo on “Tina’s Glass Nickel”. And in one of the more touching moments I can imagine on a University jazz album, “Cathy’s Song”, written by Dr. Lark in tribute to his wife, is performed beautifully by his son Bobby.
As a student at DePaul, I remember the awesome experiences of performing on these recordings, and as I’ve gone out in the world and played in other bands and recordings, those experiences have only become more special. What I love about this band and program is that as much as the cooperative performance is spotlighted, the students, the engine that drives that machine, get a chance to show off not only their improvisational skills but also their composing and arranging skills. And while those students have come and gone for the last 20+ years, the band always swings and their excellent work lives on in these great recordings. I’ve never been more proud to be a DePaul alum. Congrats to Dr. Lark and the DePaul Jazz Ensemble for an excellent record!