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Kansas City Jazz Orchestra: “In the Key of KC” (22 Sept. 2023)

Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO) has a new album. And on it they swing hard, are hip and precise—and, in the tradition, they’ll make you want to take someone’s hand and dance.

Although cut of the same cloth style-wise, “In the Key of KC” includes all new tunes, originals, like “Banana Slug,” “Blue Cheese,” and “Sir Charles,” alongside the KC classic (and album opener) “Moten Swing.” As the album’s liner notes reveal, “KCJO's fourth studio presents, for the first time, an album of arrangements by current members of the ensemble, with all but one track an original composition. This approach allows the band to pay homage to the architects of the Kansas City sound from years past, while concurrently introducing new sonorities informed by the evolution of big band jazz in the 21st century…As we move beyond the first twenty years of KCJO’s existence and into the next, the future is bright with possibilities of how Kansas City’s jazz tradition will continue to grow…KCJO’s family of artists penned tunes that are steeped in the riffy, bluesy regional language and also reflective of the creative energy of today.”

“I’ve been with them (KCJO) since the beginning,” said saxophonist Doug Talley, “and there are several of us in there that have been there that long…When people get a position, they hold on to it…because we feel like family. We take great pains to get the music to sound the best that we can…There is not much turn-over in personnel. We know…how it will sound.”

“I think that…there are differences between KCJO and all groups,” said Talley. “For instance, we know we are going to be playing for a large audience, and people are coming there, and we are going to be the focus of that. It’s not like you’re playing in a restaurant…background music…or people are having drink somewhere, at a bar. It’s a difference. We are the focus. And it’s always been that way….The idea is that KCJO is not going to try to compete with other dance bands. It (KCJO) was it’s own thing….We know each other, so I think it adds an urgency or importance that we do a really good job of presentation. It’s not that we wouldn’t anyway. It’s just we know that the audience is…putting and importance on it, an importance to the musician.”

Among the many originals on this album, “Blue Cheese” is playful and zany, but still stately; its horn lines are amusingly and reservedly austere. Although of a piece, the album has range in mood and approach. Eboni Fondren’s velvety voice on “Ain’t Nobody Like My Baby” is engaging and compelling. Mellow and thoughtful, she smartly and cleverly voices this new tune, bringing it to zestful, playful life.

Trent Austin’s trumpet solo on “One Million Five,” full of deft swift runs, fingers pumping, followed by stand-out shouts, is a bright delight, warm and brassy—and full of levity and hopeful held notes. “One Million Five” also features Fondren on convincing, conversational vocals. Fondren’s brief scat solo on this tune is also a standout; it deftly echoes Austin and the band.

“Sometimes bands will record a section at a time,” said Talley, “and what they end up with is kind of artificial…a bunch of overdubbing. That isn’t what this was,” Talley said of the KCJO recording session. “I’m not saying this was all first takes…But it was extremely rewarding…It was somewhat tedious. We wanted to get it right and did not settle for so-so.” And they did get it right.

Always classy, and always a show, go see KCJO live—and hear these tunes in the concert hall room. Or, next best, get this album and take the band with you. Get it.

—Kevin Rabas

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