Saxophone Journal, Jan/Feb. 2010

This recording is the first release emanating from the University of South Florida’s Center for Jazz Composition. In 2006, CJC, under the direction of Chuck Owen, launched an international jazz arranging competition honoring saxophonist and composer extraordinaire Michael Brecker. Over eighty pieces from five countries were submitted and the winner of the competition was Fred Stride from Vancouver, British Columbia. While the competition was in progress, CJC commissioned arrangements from composers Gil Goldstein and Vince Mendoza. Each writer selected a piece of his own choosing; Mendoza wrote Slings and Arrows, Goldstein chose to arrange The Mean Time, a piece he had arranged for Brecker’s final recording, Pilgrimage (reviewed in Saxophone Journal, Nov/Dec, 2007).

These pieces, along with arrangements written by Dave Stamps and Owen were to be premiered in a series of concerts throughout Central Florida in April of 2007. After Brecker’s death in January, 2007 some serious rethinking took place, and ultimately it was decided to go ahead with the concerts and recording as a tribute to this great musician.

Truthfully, I’m not sure if the Jazz Surge is a professional ensemble or student band, or a hybrid. What I can tell you is that the band is sensational. Their playing is cohesive, energetic, and absolutely in sync with the music at hand.

The CD opens with Stride’s award-winning arrangement of Peep. The action-packed chart is filled with twists and turns and terrific counterpoint. The soloists are brother Randy and Mike Stern. Mendoza’s tour-de-force arrangement of Slings and Arrows follows. Here the featured soloists are band members LaRue Nickelson (guitar) and Jack Wilkins (tenor saxophone), as well as Gottlieb (drums). Wilkins, whom I believe teaches at USF, is the real surprise on this recording. He is a saxophonist and soloist of the first order; great sound, technique, and musical sensibility. He brings the right stuff to this music without attempting to be a Brecker clone.

The first two Owen contributions are Itsbynne Reel and How Long Til the Sun. The former, features Wilkins and Nickelson again and violinist Rob Thomas; the latter, a lovely lush arrangement, features Randy, Thomas and band pianist Per Danielsson.

Stamp’s lone contribution on the recording, Sumo, features Liebman on tenor, band trombonist Tom Brantley and Thomas again on violin. Goldstein’s rendition of The Mean Time follows, with solos by Wilkins, Stern, and Liebman this time on soprano saxophone.

Owen penned the final two cuts on the CD, the first, Take a Walk opens with a battle-royal between Lovano on tenor and Liebman on soprano before they come to terms and play the intricate melody with the help of Mike Mainieri on vibes. Mainieri plays the first solo (and his only outing on the CD) with Lovano and Liebman in hot pursuit. Owen’s gorgeous arrangement of the prophetically titled Everything Happens When You’re Gone brings everything full circle. Lovano is the featured soloist here and his passionate performance says it all.

-Billy Kerr