The New England Jazz Ensemble began as a weekly rehearsal band in 1991. Its purpose is to be a forum for new compositions that possess elements of ballroom swing reminiscent of the big band era. The music shares traits with the orchestras led by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Guy Lombardo. A 16-piece big band orchestra, the New England Jazz Ensemble has released their sixth recording, Peter and the Wolf.
The tracks are a musical adaptation of Sergei Prokofiev’s original work made in 1936. Prokofiev’s crafted a symphonic fairytale that made the classical repertoire fascinating for children. NEJE gives the tracks justice, playing the numbers with the intention of persuading children to enjoy the classical repertoire, as the music had done in its day.
The narration presented by orator Giacomo Gates is enhanced by a symphony of horns, keyboard instruments, drums, and both an upright bass and electric bass. Gates tells the children’s story while the orchestra illustrates the evolving scenes. The wolf’s actions are played by the trombone, the duck’s movements performed by the trumpet, the bird is articulated by the soprano saxophone, the cat by the bass clarinet, the hunters by the drums, and so forth, as each character is represented by an individual instrument. Peter, alone, is expressed by the entire orchestra. Sometimes figuring out whose narrative is being performed is challenging but the pleasantness of the music makes up for the confusion.
The orchestra proves to be an educational tool as well as an entertaining unit, applying the principles of ballroom swing and jazz repertoire to the recording. In the title track, arranger Walt Gwardyak channels several different musical styles including salsa, blues, ragtime jazz, and jazz waltz, forming a stream of seamless sequences along the composition. The prismatic hues of the horns shape “Waltzing with Wolves” into an intriguing mosaic of sounds, tweaked by a bubbly upright bass line. The lounging swagger of the trombones along “Wolves” is delightfully animated, embellished by the slinky ambling of Gwardyak’s accordion.
In addition to performing these tracks live, NEJE has been awarded a grant from the Greater Hartford Arts Council to develop lesson plans and a curriculum to accompany the use of this re-imagined adaptation in public schools. NEJE irrefutably has continued their legacy of creativity, as it modernizes the familiar milieu of big band swing.