Room 118 honors the space in the Seretean Center for the Performing Arts wherein the splendid Oklahoma State University Jazz Orchestra and other on-campus jazz groups held their rehearsals for many years. There must be something special there, as the OSU ensemble is one of the most well-rehearsed university-level jazz ensembles you’re likely to encounter this side of the University of North Texas—and even that comparison marks a very close call. Director Tommy Poole had the band burnished and ready to record its latest album, which, unlike those that preceded it, showcases the orchestra exclusively rather than sharing the spotlight with invited guest artists.
The word “band” should perhaps be pluralized, as three ensembles—albeit with largely identical personnel—were involved in the recording sessions, held in October 2018, May 2019 and December 2019. The Seretean Center, where the entire album was recorded, has since been replaced by the state-of-the-art McKnight Center for the Performing Arts. Poole chose the playlist with care: half a dozen familiar jazz evergreens encasing bright original compositions by Wayne Wallace and pianist Dylan L Shadoan and closing with “I’ve Got What?,” a digit-challenging contrafact of the Gershwin brothers’ standard, “I’ve Got Rhythm” (complete with hair-raising saxophone soli).
The session opens with Toshiko Akiyoshi‘s clever “Tuning Up,” which gives the impression the orchestra is doing exactly that before the bluesy melody and rhythm emerge from the chaos. The ensemble handles it well, as do the soloists: Shadoan, baritone saxophonist Matthew Howell, altos Matthew Floeter and Nathan Brooks, tenor Kyle Fisher and trombonists Jacob Eyler and Seth Giles. Bob Mintzer‘s lively “Art of the Big Band” is next (solos by Fisher, Shadoan and drummer Ryan DeShazo), followed by Herbie Hancock’s sultry “Dolphin Dance,” arranged by Mintzer and featuring Brooks, DeShazo and trombonist Kyle Hunt. The tempo slows to a crawl on Thad Jones‘ warm-hearted “To You” (showcasing Shadoan and Hunt), then regains momentum on Ted Nash’s rhythmic “5½ Weeks” (trim solos by Floeter, DeShazo and guitarist Eric Eppstein).
Eppstein solos again with trombonist Hunt and trumpeter Tyler Murray on Shadoan’s fanciful and funky “Dubious Dachshund” before the band takes it up a notch on Horace Silver‘s assertive “Nutville” and Wallace’s easy-riding “Fillmore Street Mambo” (dexterous solos by Floeter and vibraphonist Howard Potter, added percussion by Michael Bremo) before ringing down the curtain with “I’ve Got What?” (solos by Hunt, Fisher and the hard-working DeShazo). Based on this sample, the opinion here is that “you’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma”—and that as far as big-band jazz is concerned, Stillwater runs deep and should refresh anyone who pauses to enjoy a taste or more.
“….Steve Owen’s well-known Gershwin standard “I’ve Got Rhythm” from the Room 118 album, humorously titled “I’ve Got What?”. The bravura performance of this technically very demanding composition will leave no one in doubt that this university big band (OSU Jazz Orchestra) reaches a top professional level.”