Thursday, June 29, 2017

University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra: Sweet Ruby Suite

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Sweet Ruby Suite

Once in awhile, if lucky, you stumble across a musical diamond in the rough: a wholly unfamiliar gem. This album is just such a find.

Canada’s University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra (UTJO) is one of that school’s many musical ensembles, built from faculty and students. Gordon Foote directs this group. Prior to this job, he worked for more than 25 years as a professor of jazz studies at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. 

The UTJO consists of five trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass and drums. David Liebman guests here on soprano sax, and Norma Winstone on voice. All the music was written by trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler, who was born in Toronto in 1930, but spent most of his life and career in Great Britain. He died in a London nursing home at age 84. As this release amply demonstrates, he was an outstanding artist, way ahead of his time in many respects.

More than half of the album — almost 30 minutes — is devoted to Wheeler’s “Sweet Ruby Suite,” a beautiful balladic composition. The orchestral work is gorgeous, and some of the finest I’ve heard in years: particularly impressive, given that students comprise the aggregation. Winstone’s contribution consists largely of vocalese passages, as opposed to actual lyrics, and the lady has a stunning voice. Liebman’s sax work is equally impressive. 

Three shorter works — “WW,” “Canter No. 1” and “Winter Sweet” — complete the album. The music won’t make you dance or snap your fingers, but its elegance is mesmerizing; you’ll want to hear it again and again.

The University of Toronto clearly is a music school to be reckoned with. One can only hope that we’ll hear a lot more from these students.

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