It was a thrill to return to Stewart Theatre after almost exactly a year to the day to enjoy band director Wes Parker‘s superb NCSU’s big band Jazz Ensemble I.

From their opening piece “On Green Dolphin Street” (Bronislau Kaper/Ned Washington) to the end of the one hour set, the band excelled at the highest level with the swing and perfection of the best professional big bands – and this is certainly a “big” band, comprised of 21 extraordinary musicians: 19 are undergrads pursuing studies in fields other than music, playing alongside one saxophonist who is finishing his Ph.D. and another who is completing a masters.*

Most of the ten pieces are well known jazz standards that enabled the soloists to stretch out freely in such a way that the audience could readily appreciate the subtle nuances of the tunes; for example, a lengthy solo from lead tenor saxophone player Carter Harris on “Cruisin’ For A Bluesin” (Andy Weiner/arr. Peter Blair) was captivating and unequivocally outstanding from both melodic and rhythmic points of view. It was nice to hear the classic ballad “Stella By Starlight” (Ned Washington/Victor Young) with the superb evocative alto saxophone playing by Staton Michaels – complete with an up-tempo interlude with the whole band. This was followed by the classic Dizzy Gillespie bebop composition “Manteca” (Gillespie/Gil Fuller/Luciano Pozo Gonzales) featuring energetic solos by several band members.

This review would not be complete without plaudits for Coleman Williams; he is the epitome of a “tasteful musician” and is the drummer in the ensemble – which is a rare description for a drummer especially if the musician has incredible technique. In this context Parker announced that he will be taking a sabbatical leave shortly and his directorship of Jazz Ensemble I will be overseen by the “legendary” Raleigh drummer and educator David Albert. So, it was particularly appropriate that the final piece of the evening featured both drummers on the closing tune “Juggernaut” (Brian Hobbs). To say that this was a tour de force of alternating drum solos and combined demonstration of the technique and musicality of jazz drumming, is almost an understatement.

It is noted that this program was opened by the excellent Triangle Youth Jazz Band, comprised of middle school students and directed by Kobie Watkins,** but is not reviewed here due to time considerations. Hopefully, this will be accomplished on a future occasion. Parker announced that the other NCSU bands that enable younger musicians to learn, understand, and perform great classical and jazz music will be supervised by the current deputy director, bassist Jason Foureman**.

*This section edited 4/30/19 in response to welcome corrections provided by the ensemble’s director.

**Watkins and Foureman were featured on the opening piece of the Jazz Ensemble I concert “On Green Dolphin Street” (above).