What a pleasure to hear such a well-rehearsed and enthusiastic big band, surely the jewel-in-the-crown of North Carolina’s jazz community, under the direction of the irrepressible trumpeter Jim Ketch! He and co-founder Gregg Gelb still form the nucleus of the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra (NCJRO) after more than 20 years of traveling the state performing an eclectic mix of concerts, community awareness of jazz and educational workshops.

It would be amiss if the opening group (not advertised) were not mentioned. They were from the Panther Creek High School Jazz Ensemble in Cary, and they played a short set of three standard jazz pieces under the excellent direction of their band director David Robinson. Their rendition of “Satin Doll” was as smooth and swinging as was enjoyed several generations ago from the likes of the Glenn Miller band in its heyday; their grandparents would have been (or maybe were?) proud to hear these teenagers, who were appropriately outfitted in full evening attire. It is encouraging to know that a public school is still teaching the basics of jazz, albeit with students who do not receive class credit for this ensemble, but do it for the love of jazz.

The NCJRO acquitted itself with great aplomb and enthusiasm. The horn sections are as good and tight as any in the country; Leroy Barley’s trumpet solo on Thad Jones’ “Low Down” was as down-to-earth (pun intended!) and innovative as Thad would have appreciated. Jeff Blair’s alto sax solo on Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” was quite extraordinary in that one could easily have mistaken it for one the late Johnny Hodges would have played in Duke Ellington’s band in the 1950s. The impressive aural dynamics of NCJRO cannot be over-emphasized, and they clearly reflect the enthusiasm and talent of their director himself; he played a brilliant solo on flugelhorn that evoked Thad Jones on the band’s rendition of the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn classic “The Second Time Around.”

The appearance of the guest artists upped the ante for the evening. First was the delightful Eden Ahbez ballad “Nature Boy” featuring Roland Barber on trombone using a plunger mute with which he succeeded in emulating nature in a most creative and evocative manner. However his twin brother Rahsaan‘s composition “Jubilee” followed and featured a most remarkable solo on tenor sax by the composer; he evoked sax players from Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, to the so-called avant guarde playing of the likes of Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, and Joe Lovano. This was clearly the most complex and original piece of the evening. It involved several key and meter changes at a very fast tempo and was executed flawlessly by the band – a tribute to the professionalism and experience of the members of NCJRO.

Other highlights of the evening were Gregg Gelb’s marvelous arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Exotica.” It had all the feel of a Coltrane piece, especially during the solos by Gelb and trumpeter Barley. Unfortunately the drum solo by Stephen Coffman suffered not from his skills but from the less-than-optimal acoustics of the Kenan music building rehearsal hall; the rhythm section sounded muffled throughout the concert and severely detracted from the overall “sound” of this superb band. A different placement of the musicians might help, for example elevating the drums (and possibly the bass) just as the sax, trombone and trumpet sections are raised. However these acoustic issues did not appear to detract from a rousing piece by Rahsaan Barber called “Girls Night Out” that alternated between a bebop, sometimes shuffle beat with audience participation (hand clapping) and a Dexter Gordon/John Coltrane-like sax solo from Barber.

It is fitting that North Carolina has a professional jazz orchestra (cf. the NC Symphony) that can host visiting artists of the caliber of the Barber brothers. NCJRO has recorded three CDs to date; perhaps the next one could feature one, or more, of its renowned visiting artists!