Since 1969, The Jazz Ambassadors have served as America’s champions of jazz. The 19-member ensemble is a division of the United States Army Field Band, and despite the group’s military orientation, they are prepared to entertain a variety of audiences. The group has appeared in all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, India, and several European countries. Their latest recording, “The Legacy of Hank Levy” is a collection of the American composer and saxophonist’s best works.
As Memorial Day 2017 comes to a close, it seems fitting to listen to The Jazz Ambassadors, if a person has not done so previously. Checking out The Jazz Ambassadors’ body of work, it is clear that jazz is a serious undertaking. The significant recordings done in the 21st century salute the legacy of one jazz great or another, and in that way, the group keeps jazz alive for additional audiences.
Levy, (1927-2001), was known for wanting to play jazz in odd time signatures to enliven it a bit. Thus, his works have a particular verve to them that listeners might not find elsewhere. In a Levy composition, it is not unusual to hear what sounds like a heated debate between horns and drums, until at last they agree in a shimmering, ringing finale.
Body of Work
The music of The Jazz Ambassadors sounds well-trained, but with enough elements of blues and swing to keep even the most discerning listeners intrigued. Case in point, a live album from several years ago, sounds as crisp and clear as a studio album. Listeners have no idea that it is live until the audience begins its rapturous applause.
The Jazz Ambassadors are more than rote players of classics, however. Some of the songs have been specially arranged, and even when the group sticks close to the original rendering, the best way to describe the sound is vibrant. The band members play regimented jazz without sounding stiff, and the result is a performance turn that audiences cannot help but respond positively to it.
One of my favorites from the 2017 recording and the aforementioned live recording is “Whiplash.” Heralding horns give way to almost rock-like elements of guitar and drums. Those are taken over by typical jazz elements. Is this the back and forth of the song’s title? A listener wonders. It is a lively, finger-snapping piece, and undoubtedly a crowd favorite. No wonder it appears on at least two recordings. Live and recorded, it is the best instrumental by this group.
Fine and Mellow
The origin of this song can be traced by to Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording, but it has also been recorded by Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone. That is an impressive roster of voices, and enough to intimidate any singer wishing to cover the song. However, on The Jazz Ambassadors’ live recording, they have a version of “Fine and Mellow” with the singing done by a soloist who lives up to the mastery illustrated by James, Fitzgerald, and Simone. The horns are full-throated, then the brass section tapers down to the saxophone, drum, and organ to register the song as a lament. Here, the blues elements of jazz come to life in a sophisticated way.
Further Listening for Prospective Audiences
There are more than one hundred of The Jazz Ambassadors well-tuned songs available on Spotify. Some other standouts include “Sunday Kind of Love,” “Easy Street,” and “Over the Rainbow.” With a cache of classic jazz tunes and a regiment of highly trained musicians and soloists, The Jazz Ambassadors keep an American tradition alive that Americans can be proud of, and that music lovers everywhere can appreciate.