For nearly three decades, the New England Jazz Ensemble (NEJE) has been at the forefront of contemporary jazz ensemble performance, collaboration and education in the northeastern U.S. With a book of original compositions and arrangements penned from within its ranks, the NEJE delivers on its mission to promote the jazz ensemble as a uniquely American art form. A not-for-profit organization the NEJE commissions new works, does extensive concertizing and collaborates with music educators in public schools and universities to perpetuate the jazz art form. And as you will hear, they can really lay it down too.
The New England Jazz Ensemble was created in 1991 as a weekly rehearsal band and a forum for new compositions. It was founded by trumpeter Mike Jones; Walt Gwardyak, pianist and composer/arranger, has been the music director from the beginning. Compositions by Gwardyak, John Mastroianni, Jeff Holmes, JP Merz, and others form the band’s book. The 16-piece big band has a loyal following and sells its music through on-line CD sales and downloads far and wide.
In just its fourth year, 1994, the band received an NEA grant to travel to the 10th annual jazz festival in Corinth, Greece. Following that trip, Walt Gwardyak composed an original piece “Blouzo” for the band, with extended solos for the trombone section. The composition is included on the ensemble’s debut recording, and marks the beginning of a legacy of creativity for this modern big band and its stable of composers/arrangers.
The band now has six albums (CDs, if you prefer) to its name, two of which are ‘live’ performances. Its latest release includes Gwardyak’s 2018 arrangement of “Peter and the Wolf,” the first new big-band re-imagination of Prokofiev’s masterpiece in more than 50 years. It is also the first to have an original libretto: in this case, a “hip” narrative written and delivered by Giacomo Gates. In addition to concerts showcasing the work around New England, the NEJE has been awarded a grant from the Greater Hartford Arts Council to develop lesson plans and curriculum to accompany the use of this new music in public schools.
The band’s previous release, It’s a Grand Night for Swinging was recorded live in performance with guest artists John Abercrombie, Giacomo Gates and Ali Ryerson. Jeff Holmes’ rousing arrangement of Billy Taylor’s “A Grand Night for Swinging” is one of the band’s most-requested numbers. The previous release, Live at the Pittsfield CityJazz Festival, ushered in the inaugural Pittsfield, Massachusetts festival –now the longest-standing jazz festival in the Berkshires– in 2005.
A Christmas CD featuring the Duke Ellington Nutcracker and original treatments of other holiday jazz selections was recorded in 2003 and is frequently performed in concert or in collaboration with ballet companies throughout New England. The band’s first two CDs, Storm before the Calm and its breakout Version 3.0 continue to sell, thanks to widespread airplay and streaming.
After his review of Version 3.0 (“These gentlemen can flat out play”, he wrote) Jack Bowers, put that release on his desert island top twenty albums of the year (1995).
“…the music presented by the NEJE is fresh and timeless, as any admirable music should be. As such, it remains warmly recommended.” -Jack Bowers, All About Jazz
Re-imagining PETER AND THE WOLF
“It’s a great sound and I really love the way it’s recorded.”
-Mark Ruffin SiriusXM; 2018 Jazz Congress’ Jukebox Jury
Sergei Prokofiev composed “Peter and the Wolf” to help introduce symphonic music, and instruments, to young audiences. The narrative and musical adaptation of the animal sounds served to interest young audiences in the classical music of the day.
A large jazz ensemble provides an equally compelling setting, and a tool for introducing jazz styles and genres, to all audiences. In one extended work, arranger Walt Gwardyak explores many different jazz styles including Blues, Salsa, New Orleans Jazz, Cool Jazz, Jazz Waltz, etc., and uses different instruments or combinations to represent the characters in the story. In and of itself, it’s a fascinating and engaging exercise; the benefit of using “Peter And The Wolf” to introduce jazz to new audiences is an added bonus. Today, the much-heralded vocalist Giacomo Gates composed a hipper version of the libretto, which lends additional stylistic interest and accessibility to the work.
In Prokofiev’s mid-1930s world, the story engaged audiences right from the top; as an added benefit, the music was a stealthy way to get children’s attention without even realizing they were attending a classical performance. Today’s jazz audiences are unlikely to find a current musical parallel anywhere.
Completing this recording are original compositions by two other members of the ensemble’s composition staff. Inspired by things lupine, and often based on melodic lines of Prokofiev, they include “Serge’s Birds” and “Wolves”, both by Jeff Holmes, and “Waltzin’ with Wolves” and “Power Serge”, by John Mastroianni.
The New England Jazz Ensemble
Giacomo Gates, Narrator and Peter and the Wolf “Jazzbretto” Author (tracks 1,2)
John Mastroianni, Soprano Sax and “Chirp” soloist, Alto Sax,
Bob DePalma, Alto Sax, Flute, Clarinet
Michael Leventhal, Tenor Sax, Clarinet, Tenor Sax soloist
Larry Dvorin, Tenor Sax, Clarinet
Lisa LaDone, Baritone Sax, Bass Clarinet, “Cat” soloist
Jeff Holmes, Trumpet and “Quacker” soloist,
Piccolo Trumpet, Flugelhorn,
Steven Fitzko, Trumpet, Harmon soloist, Flugelhorn
Donald Clough, Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Adam Mejaour, Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Hank Zorn, Trumpet, Flugelhorn (tracks 1,2)
Tim Atherton, Trombone and “Wolf”
Peter McEachern, Trombone and “Wolf”
Ben Griffin, Trombone and “Wolf” (tracks 1,2)
David Sporny, Trombone (tracks 3,4,5,6)
David Wampler, Bass Trombone and “Wolf”
Walter Gwardyak, Piano, Accordion
Steve Bulmer, Upright Bass, Electric Bass, and “Grandfather”
Jon Mele, Drums and “The Hunters” Soloist
1. Introduction [1:54]
2. Peter and the Wolf [33:42] Original Music by Sergei Prokofiev,
Arranged by Walter Gwardyak, Modern “Jazzbretto” written and narrated by Giacomo Gates Score conducted by and edited for recorded and live performances by Jeff Holmes
3. Serge’s Birds [6:03]
Melodic lines by Sergei Prokofiev, Adapted and re-set by Jeff Holmes
Soloists: John Mastroianni, flute; Jeff Holmes, piccolo trumpet
4. Power Serge [7:29]Melodic lines by Sergei Prokofiev. Adapted and re-set by John Mastroianni
Soloists: Mike Leventhal, tenor sax; John Mastroianni, alto sax
5. Waltzin’ with Wolves [8:37]Composed and Arranged by John Mastroianni Soloists: Tim Atherton and Peter McEachern, trombones; Steve Bulmer, bass; Steven Fitzko, trumpet
6. Wolves [7:23] Composed and Arranged by Jeff Holmes
Soloists: Jeff Holmes, trumpet, Walt Gwardyak, accordion