In addition to heading the Chicago Skyliners Big Band, Bill O'Connell has a record label that he uses not only for his own productions, but also -- from time to time -- the offerings of local university jazz groups. This album captures two sessions by the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble. Under the tutelage of jazz study coordinator Bob Lark and a strong faculty, the group offers an hour of challenging and exciting music. While perhaps not at the same level as seasoned jazz professionals, what this band lacks in finesse (and it lacks little of that), it more than compensates with enthusiasm. One advantage a university-based jazz group has over a professional one is that there are not the same pressures to sell a lot of discs and make a lot of money. This allows for repertoire with room for off-the-beaten-track material. It also provides an outlet for aspiring student composers to learn their craft and to get their music heard. In this case, the program has three pieces by two of the ensemble members, Vance Thompson and Doug Angelaccio. There is also a nod to the standard repertoire with "I Thought About You." There is a Stan Kenton influence apparent throughout; even some of the soloists sound as if they had listened to Kenton's outstanding soloists of the band's heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. David Bradley's trombone solo on "Shade Street," for example, recalls the work of Frank Rosolino for Kenton. All the members of the ensemble are well-schooled in the fine art of jazz music and play with confidence and skill. They are well-versed in bop, as evidenced by Jason Rigby's Johnny Griffin-like tenor and the Kai Winding-sounding trombone of Steven Bradley on "Song for My Mother." One of the album's highlights is Rigby's virtuoso playing on the soprano sax -- which is difficult to keep in tune -- on "From One Who Cares." Lark understands the need for a strong drummer to energize the other players. Dana Hall, who is present on both sessions, fits the bill as he provides the fuel for the ensemble's musical spacecraft to take off. All in all, Shade Street offers almost 60 minutes of outstanding big-band music played by exemplary performers. Recommended.
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AllMusic Review by Dave Nathan