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NYO Jazz is the jazz extension of three National Youth Orchestra ensembles created by Carnegie Hall, the other two existing in a classical music realm. Since its inception in 2018, NYO Jazz’s 25 members, ages 16-19, have toured internationally. Following their COVID-related hiatus, this group of rigorously auditioned and rehearsed youngsters concertized their way across the U.S. this past summer under the direction of professional trumpeter Sean Jones, current president of the Jazz Education Network (JEN).
Jones’ leadership of the NYO Jazz big band accrues the artistic rigor and success of his own combo. And just as Jones’ working band’s repertoire is difficult to categorize, NYO Jazz’s set list can best be summed up with well-warranted, somewhat ambiguous superlatives such as “state-of-the-art jazz composition and arranging,” or “difficult charts indicative of our transformative world.” Several lighthearted tunes balance the program: a recasting of Ellington’s medium-tempo “Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool,” Neal Hefti’s “Cute” and Quincy Jones’ Basie-ish ballad “Pleasingly Plump” (available in digital format only). Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s call-and-response band vocal “We’re Still Here/He’s Alright” — the band’s regular concert encore — is just good clean, rabble-rousing fun — emulating an old film duet from Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Jones, Gordon and tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana are the soloist ringers heard on four of 15 tunes in digital format (11 tracks on the CD), but everyone gets to strut their solo stuff throughout. For example, one of four tunes commissioned by Carnegie Hall, John Beasley’s ambiguously funky “Fête Dans la Tête,” opens up for solos from five players, while Ralph Peterson’s straightahead and up-tempo “The Art of War” features six nicely developing soloists.
The degree of difficulty of this music would present a challenge for any professional big band. Fast, serpentine counterpoint lines accentuated by oddly placed staccato hits are heard throughout. Unison octaves are spot on, pitch-wise. And this cohesive group of soon-to-be names-to-know pulls it off without an audible hitch — certainly a credit to Gen Z’s work ethic. — James Rozzi