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Although the DIVA Jazz Orchestra only began recording for the MCG Jazz label in 2014, the hard-swinging all-female ensemble boasts a history that dates back nearly 30 years. The inspiration came from Stanley Kay, one-time manager and relief drummer for Buddy Rich, who was conducting a band featuring Sherrie Maricle on drums. Blown away by her skills, Kay began searching for other top female jazz players via nationwide auditions.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary with a performance for the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild concert series, the big band — still helmed by Maricle and currently featuring 16 musicians — is all brassy glow, spirited boom and sensual seduction on its latest release, DIVA + The Boys. The live showcase includes lushly arranged interpretations of tunes by Benny Goodman, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Ivan Lins, as well as a couple of originals, all of which seamlessly pair the orchestra with the notable “boys” of the title — clarinetist Ken Peplowski, trumpeter Claudio Roditi, trombonist Jay Ashby and guitarist Marty Ashby.
Roditi and Jay Ashby are not simply contributing key solos. As integral participants in the project, they bring original compositions to the party. Ashby’s lighthearted, horn-fired “Deference to Diz” and Roditi’s jaunty, sashaying “Piccolo Blues” breeze beautifully alongside the orchestra’s spirited new spins of the classics.
With a title like DIVA + The Boys, this project could be seen as a girl-power-type novelty. Yet, it’s so graciously and perfectly balanced, it’s anything but. Rather, the album serves as a reminder that transcendent jazz has no gender. The concept may draw you in, but the musicianship and fun-filled arrangements are what will win you over. — Jonathan Widran