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Reviewers: Don Mather, Tony Augarde, Dick Stafford, John Eyles, Robert Gibson, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby

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Spartacus STS 012



1. Hoe Down
2. Chronometry
3. Gentle Piece
4. A Night in Tunisia
5. Cottontail
6. Now
Joe Locke - Vibes
Rachael Cohen - Alto sax, soprano sax
Adam Jackson - Alto sax
Ben Bryden, Joseph Wright, John Fleming - Tenor saxes
Bill Fleming - Baritone sax
Ryan Quigley, Tom MacNiven, Kim Macari, Liam Heath - Trumpets
Michael Campbell, Kieran McLeod, Patrick Kenny, Richard Foote - Trombones
Michael Owers - Bass trombone
Euan Fulton, Alan Benzie - Piano
Daniel Short - Guitar
Michael Janisch - Bass
Ross Whyte - Drums

So-called "rehearsal bands" (which give concerts as well as rehearsing) provide useful training grounds for musicians learning the ropes, as I know from having played in several; of them. My experience has made me aware of the benefits and pitfalls of such groups. The main benefit is that the tyro musician can learn his craft in the company of other inexperienced players who are mostly all learners - and therefore sympathetic to the struggles of their fellows. One of the main drawbacks is that playing in a big band teaches you big-band music, which may well differ from what you find if you go on to play in a small group. Another drawback is that many of these rehearsal bands use the same old tired arrangements which lack any spark of excitement.

At least this last accusation cannot be levelled at Tommy Smith's Youth Jazz Orchestra. The sleeve-note gives no indication of who wrote the arrangements but I assume that Tommy did them himself - and they are enterprising as well as varied. The band tackles them skilfully, with polished ensemble work that probably benefited from the tour which preceded this recording. If the ensemble is this band's strength, its main weakness is in the solos - another common feature of many such bands. However well trained they are, most young musicians cannot be expected to have mastered the intricacies of improvisation, and many of the solos on this CD are lacklustre. In the very first track, baritone saxist Bill Fleming and trombonist Michael Campbell sound slightly uncomfortable with the fast tempo and their solos lack fluency. Pianist Alan Benzie gets out of synch with the rhythm in his solo. The best solo on this track comes from Joe Locke, but then he is one of the professional guests. In fact he is featured on all six tunes: soloing at the end of each of the first five and at the start of the sixth.

Chronometry sets the band some difficult ensemble passages, which they negotiate brilliantly. Kenny Wheeler's well-titled Gentle Piece allows the soloists more elbow room, with pianist Euan Fulton and tenorist Joe Wright outstanding. A Night in Tunisia is a hard tune to get right but the band triumphs, although the solos are again of variable quality. Tackling a tune like Cottontail challenges comparison with the Ellington original, and tenorist Ben Bryden cannot be expected to compete with Ben Webster. Too often on this recording, the soloists sound as if they are trying to get through their solos instead of fashioning something creative. But Ben Whyte's drumming here and throughout the album pushes the band along splendidly.

Tommy Smith formed this band in 2002 and he deserves praise for keeping it together as a breeding ground for the next generation of Scottish musicians. This debut CD testifies to their high standard as a cohesive group but also suggests areas where their potential has yet to be fully realised. I'm judging the album by the highest standard - but that's the only acceptable standard for young musicians aiming to be among the best.

Tony Augarde





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