Academic jazz doesn’t have to shuffle its feet in some dim library corner anymore. It can link arms and step out with the most swaggering club veteran and after-hours jammer.
Of course, anyone familiar with David Baker’s dynamic long-running program at IU already knows that. With jazz overall assuming more of a high-art stature than it may be entirely comfortable with, it makes sense that the searching creativity and skill the music now embraces should have plenty of protection and nurture in institutions of higher learning.
Now comes Chuck Owen and his University of South Florida Center for Jazz Composition band with a soaring tribute to the compositions of Michael Brecker, the formidable tenor saxophonist who died in 2006 of myelodysplastic syndrome. Without his distinctive instrumental voice (anyone else remember Herbie Hancock returning to the Clowes Hall stage shaking his head and smiling after Brecker’s torrential unaccompanied interpretation of “Naima”?), his writing as interpreted by others has to speak for him.
On “Comet’s Tail” (MAMA Records), Owen contributes arrangements of four Brecker originals. Competition winner Fred Stride’s chart for “Peep” gets the disc off to an intricate, funk-besotted start. It’s an ingenious piece of work, clean-featured and swinging, but signals a tendency that eventually mars the disc: This is assertive contemporary big-band writing that honors Brecker’s spirit but perhaps verges on textural overload. If Richard Strauss had turned to jazz and gotten funky, it might sound like this.The solos always get some great context, however, and there are fine ones from guests Mike Stern, guitar, and the honoree’s formidable brother Randy on trumpet.