Sharks and manatees are two of nature’s best known animals representing two extremes in terms of temperament and style. This seemed a fitting title for our debut CD. Not only is “Sharks & Manatees” a very unique big band arrangement by our own Ejric Bernhardt, but the name also symbolizes the depth and extremes of MJO’s repertoire, which we have showcased on this CD. Here we include everything from jazz classics, straight ahead burners, cult classics (Maynard Ferguson fans!) and lush ballads to exotic tunes from all over the world!
History of MJO: The Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra (MJO) was formed in January 2002 by Kevin Buchanan and me, out of a desire to play WHAT we wanted, WHEN we wanted! To our excitement and encouragement, our first night’s rehearsal was attended by 20+ local Denver Metro area musicians. After the dust settled, MJO was born. Out of those original players, seven are still in the group today with many of the original musicians gladly joining us occasionally to sit in. Early on, vocalists were recruited to add the big band jazz vocal style we all know and love, enriching and expanding our already solid repertoire of sound. After a couple years, Jim Mick moved from the trumpet section to the directors stand to become the MJO Musical Director. What began as a creative avenue has blossomed into one of Denver’s premier jazz orchestras with no signs of slowing down!
MJO: Giving Back Through Education: Coming up on nearly 10 years now, MJO is still going strong - playing regular monthly gigs at Dazzle Jazz Club in Denver, CO (voted a “Top-100 Jazz Club in the World” by Downbeat Magazine) as well as at fairs, galas, festivals, private events, fundraisers, and even a wedding or two. In May 2006, MJO was granted its non-profit (501c3) status with a stated mission of “supporting big band jazz music in our schools.” We started with our wildly successful MJO Presents program, which features a different high school jazz ensemble in concert with MJO at Dazzle twice a month. We then expanded our program again to add our Guest Artist Program, which brings national and international professional musical talent to town for special clinics/concerts with MJO and area jazz students.
MJO Debut CD: This groundbreaking CD has been a labor of love and a long time coming, as we have worked diligently to coordinate the schedules of 20 musicians who mostly have “day jobs”. During 2009-2010, MJO musicians and vocalists spent many an hour at Audio Park Recording Studio in Arvada, CO under the discerning ears of Park Peters for three separate recording sessions. In order to put our very best musical foot forward, we really took our time on this project.
I’d like to offer a special THANK YOU to our friends Eric Richards, Gary Urwin, and Matt Amy, as well as our own Jim Mick and Ejric Bernhardt, for their contributions of original material to the repertoire. The other arrangements on this CD represent the finest arrangers in the industry who consistently put out some of the best big band music WE could ever have the pleasure of performing. And of course, a most heartfelt THANK YOU goes to out to all of the men and women of MJO who constantly brave the various Colorado elements every week, every month, every year, attending rehearsals and various gigs all over the Rocky Mountain Region.
We hope you enjoy Sharks & Manatees!
You Don’t Know What Love Is is a great opener and a fantastic arrangement by our good friend Eric Richards. One of THE most consistently outstanding arrangers of our time, Eric is featured prominently on our CD because his charts are just that good! Eric, a former staff arranger for the US Army Jazz Ambassadors (to name only ONE of his career accomplishments), has been a featured soloist with our group for many years. The variety of challenging, yet down-right fun-to-play charts he brings to us has been a never-ending source of great tunes for our set lists. It’s not far from the truth to say that we play an Eric Richards arrangement at least once per set. This chart on the jazz standard is a straight ahead burner, giving our two soloists, Tyler Farr on alto and Dan Johnson on trumpet, an extremely fun and driving set of changes to play. The chart goes from warp speed to a solid swinger, even slipping in the classic James Bond Theme quote.
Beauty and The Beast is one of Gordon Goodwin’s outstanding arrangements that takes the familiar Disney tune and arranges it in the classic Basie swing style. It features soft-soft moments punctuated with loud brassy pops and swings from the very beginning to the very end!
Souvenir is another example of how Eric Richards masterfully takes a jazz standard and gives the soloist (in this case our piano player, Gary Dempsey) room to stretch out, while still making it a pleasure both to listen to as well as to play. First composed by Benny Carter for a 1987 recording with the American Jazz Orchestra, this gorgeous ballad was arranged by Eric for a tribute album by the Army’s Jazz Ambassadors: The Legacy of Benny Carter.
I Love Bein’ Here With You is another outstanding Eric Richards arrangement in the hard swingin’ Thad Jones-influenced style that he originally composed for the US Army Jazz Ambassadors. Our vocalist, Suzanne Morrison, gives it her own unique interpretation, along with our lead trombonist and co-founder of the band, Kevin Buchannan, who adds the fine trombone solo.
When Ejric brought MJO the chart for Sharks & Manatees to try out, we immediately enjoyed its contemporary feel…but with a rap vocal?? In a big band jazz tune?? Never!! But, throughout the music, as you feel yourself roll back and forth on the calms and the storms encountered at sea, the flow is just perfect. It’s a pleasure to hear and play Ejric’s outstanding composition, masterfully combined with the universal message of personal improvement and life’s constant struggle to become a better person on the ever-changing “high seas” of life.
While it’s very easy to understand Ejric’s rap, I wanted to add a representative sample of his insightful message:
Do the best you can with everything you got
Struggle day to day, cherish every fight you’ve fought
Destroy all obstacles, remove the blocks
Got to stand strong, can ya do it, break through
Can you move on?
Wherever you are, wherever you ain’t
Honor your individual path
No fingers to point, no one to blame
Trust yourself even if it seems insane
Stay alert, keep thinkin’, keep growin’
Keep readin’, find meanin’
Blood and treasure, pirates and thieves
Pain and pleasure, sharks and manatees
I got experience, I got degrees
But does it mean anything on the high seas
Like many of us trumpet players who grew up listening to Maynard Ferguson, it is an honor and privilege to play Bridge Over Troubled Water, the classic Paul Simon tune arranged by Keith Mansfield for Maynard’s self-titled album in 1971. Maynard Ferguson (“The Boss”), whose career spanned decades - from Stan Kenton to his own Big Bop Nouveau - is often imitated but never duplicated. This is my personal tribute to a musician who has touched so many musical lives by giving many young players the opportunity to play with and learn from the master. Ferguson inspired a legion of trumpet players (and non-trumpet players alike) who carry on his memory and keep his musical legacy alive and well.
A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square is one of the most popular vocal ballads ever covered and has been performed by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Harry Connick Jr., The Manhattan Transfer, and even Rod Stewart. Our vocalist, Doug Barta, adds his own unique touches to this outstanding Mike Tomaro arrangement. This chart meshes the lush ballad with the easy bossa nova flavors that make Mike one of jazz’s most creative and prolific arrangers of our time.
A few years back, via cyber space, I met a very talented composer/arranger/trombonist from Australia, Matt Amy who was always willing to let us play his compositions. Matt graciously said “YES” to allow MJO to record his very creative and colorful arrangement of the classic Nature Boy. Featuring Zack Cassell on alto sax, this song, written in 1947 by Eden Ahbez, tells the fantasy story of a "strange enchanted boy... who wandered very far" only to learn that "the greatest thing... was just to love and be loved in return." It was covered by Nat King Cole in 1948 and has since become a pop and jazz standard.
Another good friend of MJO is Gary Urwin, a lawyer by day and composer/arranger/big band leader by night. We commissioned Gary to arrange a tune for MJO; the result was a transformation of the classic Joe Cocker rock ballad, You Are So Beautiful into a big band vocal masterpiece. Gary has a very unique and contemporary style of writing that he routinely shares with the legion of amazing players in his home town of Los Angeles. Performed exclusively by our vocalist Doug Barta, we are inspired by his soothing vocals and his outstanding trumpet work on this excellent arrangement.
Fantasia on Kang Ding Love Song is an original Eric Richards composition written for the Shanghai Conservatory of Music Jazz Ensemble in October 2008. A well-known Chinese folk song is the point of departure for this piece that combines Chinese folk tradition with the language of contemporary Western jazz in a new and exciting way. While not played on the xun, a traditional Chinese vessel flute, MJO’s Zack Cassell imbues the piece with a rich and warm flute sound that is a perfect and satisfying alternative. This piece begins with an orchestral “impressionistic blur” that flows into a driving - yet swinging - variation on the theme before returning gently to the tune’s cultural origin.
Taki Rari is a tune from the repertoire of Yma Sumac, a famous Peruvian singer/actress rumored to be a descendant of an Incan Princess. In the exotica tradition circa 1950’s, Yma was known for her extreme vocal range spanning 4+ octaves. Suzanne Morrison, our resident soprano vocalist with an equally impressive vocal range, adds her own stylings to this unique and mysterious mambo; she pays tribute to Yma by incorporating a unique Peruvian Spanish dialect that is magical and compelling.
The Nearness of You is another excellent Eric Richards chart that was originally arranged for trombonist, Jim McFalls. Eric has a unique ability to take a jazz standard and transform it into something both current and enjoyable to play. This chart gives our lead trombone player, Kevin Buchanan, a loping jazz waltz to blow through. The song was written in 1938 by Hoagy Carmichael with the biggest selling 1938 version recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra and even recorded as recently as 2002 by Norah Jones.
We are always excited to bring the compositions and arrangements of our very talented members to life, and so we close our CD with an exciting original composition by MJO’s Musical Director, Jim Mick. Jim composed Zen and The Art of Samba during his nearly 20 year stint with Colorado State University’s jazz ensembles as a featured soloist, director, composer and arranger. This chart was heavily influenced by Robert Pirsig’s book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in which the author is quoted as saying, “The real cycle you are working on is a cycle called ‘yourself.’ Jim adds, “At the time, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to leap from working on a motorcycle to creating music. It’s all a process of self-discovery through trial and error. In addition, I thought the title was really pretty ‘catchy’!” Jim also states that, “The connection between my intent behind “Zen” and what Ejric is saying in “Sharks & Manatees” makes a fitting conclusion to our project, with the hope of inspiring young musicians to ‘test the waters’ of their abilities.”
MJO can be contacted through the usual channels (website, Facebook, e-mail, phone) and we welcome comments about this CD, our group or any of our programs! We are continually a “work in progress”, striving to improve our musical product with every performance. Thank you again for your support of MJO; please come see us in Denver and come say “hi!”