Little Steps marks another sizable step forward for Great Britain’s impressive Walsall Jazz Orchestra, now entering its teen years after spinning off from the Walsall Youth Jazz Orchestra in 1994. The WJO’s third album focuses for the most part on music composed and arranged by its talented young pianist Tim Amann, who wrote four of the six selections. The others are Benny Golson’s “Hassan’s Dream,” nicely arranged by American Nicholas Beaumont, and Thomas Haines’ sharp and seamless five-part suite for big band, “All in Good Time.”
As the press release accompanying the album accurately points out, Amman’s compositions “have given the orchestra a unique identity.” And “typically they are built around strong grooves that exploit (the ensemble’s) dynamic rhythm section with drummer Carl Hemmingsley at its heart.” Along the way, they lay bare influences from Miles Davis / Gil Evans through Thad Jones and Bob Mintzer to such contemporaries as Steely Dan, Maria Schneider and Gordon Goodwin, to name a few. Amann has listened carefully, commingled their sundry designs and emerged with a clear and vibrant voice of his own
Amann prefers to set the scene with a strong rhythmic pattern, then brings on the brass and reeds to state the melody before the various soloists have their say. Among the more persuasive improvisers is guest Martin Shaw, a WJO alumnus who has gone on to become one of the UK’s most sought-after jazz trumpeters. Shaw solos on every track, either on trumpet or flugelhorn, and hits the mark with every salvo. Saxophonist Sam Rogers (tenor on “Little Steps,” “Hassan’s Dream,” “Sild,” “Solstice,” alto on Part 2 of “Good Time”) is another standout, as are Amann and flugel Paul Bennett. While I don’t much care for guitarist Rik Sandford’s abrasive style on “Steps“ and “Sleepwalking,” that’s merely a personal bias.
I am pleased to report that nearly half of the WJO’s chairs are occupied by young women—three each in the trumpet and reed sections, and two of the four trombones—even though trombonist Helen Miller is the only one to solo, on Part 3 of “Good Time.” Hemmingsley, Sandford, Amann and bassist Adam Gilchrist make sure the beat goes on and the rhythm never wavers.
Little Steps is warmly recommended, as are the WJO’s earlier albums, Watershed and Devil in the Detail, which may not be quite as adventurous but are comparably rewarding