Established in August of 1999, the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra is made up of professional musicians from around the Mid-South region. Led by trumpeter Vance Thompson, the group's maiden album captures a series of live performances made in 2000. All but two of the compositions on this set are by Donald Brown, with the others coming from the pen of Thompson. Brown was raised in Memphis and attended the university there. While in school he made a name for himself as part of the Memphis Three, a trio of exceptionally talented pianists (Brown, Mulgrew Miller, and James Williams) who went on to greater glory. A successful performing and composing career followed, including playing with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers and having his music recorded by such luminaries as Wynton Marsalis. One of his pieces was nominated for a Grammy. Brown's Tennessee roots may be the reason his works were selected for the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra's introductory CD.
Brown's significant performing and composing credentials notwithstanding, his music is neither sufficiently strong nor diverse enough to sustain an entire album. This means, then, that the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra is put at a disadvantage. Having the orchestra's maiden album limited to compositions pretty much by one composer places the ensemble in a straitjacket; performing mainly one style of music by Brown limits the group's opportunity to make this a first-rate jazz orchestra album. Certainly, there are some good cuts that allow members to stretch out. "Strangers in Paradise" (not the tune from Kismet) is a pleasant low-key piece of music with some special guitar playing by Mark Boling and restrained piano by Bill Swann. There's excellent drumming underpinning good ensemble work on "Episode From a Village Dance." But after a few tracks, a feeling of ennui creeps in because there's too little variation in the music. This is a good group of musicians, and hopefully the play list on the next album will allow the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra to exhibit all its performing capabilities.