Following a stellar performance from the “senior year” NCSU Music Department Jazz Ensemble I last Saturday, this evening’s concert by the “junior year” band substantially maintained the high standards of articulating the classic compositions from the jazz masters of yore. Band director Jason Foureman made a smart move to open with a medium tempo Thad Jones piece “Quietude” that allowed the musicians to settle in and establish the broad range of dynamics required by a 20-member band. For example, it was gratifying to hear clearly the acoustic bass in the rhythm section, including a short and lively bass solo from Lauren Howard on Mark Taylor’s “Full Count.” This upbeat piece was also the vehicle for several melodic saxophone solos from Joseph Holder and Jacob Day on tenors. Alto saxophonist D’Alex Thomas was most impressive on several pieces during the evening, in particular the Edward Heyman and Robert Sour timeless ballad “Body and Soul.”

The so-called Intermission was really a change of pace to feature the excellent smaller 5-member Jazz Studio Combo consisting of two tenor saxes, Thomas and Fredi Reyes, pianist Rahul Kathard, bassist Alexandra Farraher, and drummer Tyler Ash; the latter’s brother Logan Ash is drummer for Ensemble II and took a brief and articulate solo on Christian McBride’s up-tempo piece “Brother Misty” in the first set.

The Combo played four tunes that exploited the musicians’ solo abilities to an inspiring extent; for example, on Wayne Shorter’s composition “Black Nile,” Thomas seemed to adopt a more creative freedom approach than when somewhat confined by the big band’s strict arrangements; similarly there was some nice expressive piano work from Rahul Kathard on the Luiz Bonfa classic bossa nova “Black Orpheus.”

The second set certainly found the Ensemble invigorated and tighter as a group. George Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” was therefore an ideal opener. Basically, it is a samba consisting of three parts with a slow tempo middle section. Although the terrific arrangement by Chris Sharp calls for alto sax and trumpet, the Ensemble featured some superb playing from Thomas and Marcanthony Iacono on alto saxes; these two players had the Caribbean feel of the music as well as the necessary rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic components for their improvised solos. The enthusiastic response of the audience certainly added to the unity of the band for the remainder of the set, including a fine trombone solo from Spencer Byrd on Sammy Nestico’s medium tempo piece “Front Burner.”

Following a gentle ballad “Jamie,” also by Nestico, it was decided that the Ensemble would play the closing piece that they wanted to play. The title was Neil Hefti’s “Flight of the Foo Birds,” and the original arrangement was recorded by Count Basie in 1965. Needless to say, this was a well-rehearsed medium tempo piece that was played confidently with excellent dynamics and feeling that featured a stirring alto sax solo by Thomas. This was probably the most “together” piece of the evening; apparently, it has become popular among students and younger bands. The reason for this is unclear but probably can be gleaned from the relevant website!

Kudos to band coach Foureman, who is collaborating with band director Wes Parker in tutoring young jazz musicians to appreciate America’s Classical music.

*Full disclosure: this reviewer works occasionally with bassist Foureman.