March 12, 2012

Under the Auspices of the Greater Middletown Concert Association

FBBJ looks at (listens to) “Grand Night…”

First some decoding. The words “jazz ensemble” here mean big band. As in five saxes, four trumpets, four trombones, piano, bass, drums, 3 guest soloists and one announcer. The disk is titled It’s A Grand Night for Swinging. Details can be found at The three guests are Ali Ryerson on flute, vocalist Giacomo Gates and guitarist John Abercrombie.

First kudos should go to the announcer, a certain Ed Bride from the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Ed gives you the needed details about all the tunes – song title, composer, arranger, names of the soloists, Greenwich Mean Time and the barometric pressure. Why have an announcer? Because the entire disk was done live in performance. And it was not cherry picked from the best takes done over a week’s residence at a club. All the music comes from one concert.

And this is what strikes me most about this release. The performance by the ensemble, the big band is very together, tight, solid, swinging, at a very high level. If you listen closely, you can’t fake this. Either the band has its act together or it doesn’t. The NEJE is definitely cookin’ on high heat here.

Another plus is that all the arrangements come from band members, namely trumpet player Jeff Holmes, alto saxophonist John Mastroianni and pianist Walt Gwardyk. When most or all the arrangements come from the band members, it bodes well for more CDs from that band. It usually means there is a deep well of ideas for more fresh arrangements to draw from.

I believe Jeff Holmes is playing the lead trumpet chair. It sounds to me like he is doing a very good job, but I will leave the judgement on that to others who are more qualified than I am.

I should note that this is NOT the first recording by the NEJE. There are several others, which can be found on their web site.

Based on the charts and the ensemble alone, this is one of the better regional big bands. Check it out.

Jeff Thompson

*News Update 10/06/2011*

Listen to Walt Gwardyak talk to Mark Channon about the NEJE and the celebration of 20 years of fabulous entertainment!

Password: shs1979

New England Jazz Ensemble

The New England Jazz Ensemble is a large jazz orchestra comprising regionally based artists.  The group features original and contemporary jazz arrangements and compositions.  Much of the band’s material is generated by the ensemble’s members.  It is a performance group as well as a composer’s forum.

The Goals of the New England Jazz Ensemble

* To perpetuate the uniquely American large jazz ensemble as an art medium

* To encourage the writing of new work for large jazz ensemble

* To reach culturally diverse audiences and to educate the public about jazz

* To share the band’s wealth of expertise with the public in the form of concerts,
educational forums and programs, guest performances and recordings

* To support the opportunities for professional jazz artists to be employed
in their specific areas of expertise in order to maintain the integrity of
the jazz community in our region.

Board of Directors

Timothy Atherton

Robert Balchunas,  President

Ed Bride

Claudia Bell, Vice President

Walter Gwardyak

Lori McKinney, Secretary

Gary Tiller

Chip Caton

Steven Bulmer

Jeffrey W. Holmes

Ann Mastroianni, Treasurer

John Mastroianni

Tracy Wilson

Advisory Board

Walter Mayo

Peter McEachern

David Wampler


The New England Jazz Ensemble was created in 1991 by trumpeter, Mike Jones.  Walt Gwardyak, piano player, has been the music director from the beginning.  The band was conceived as a weekly rehearsal band and a forum for new compositions.  Compositions by Gwardyak, Mastroianni, Holmes, Merz and Person and others formed the band’s book.

In 1994, the band received an NEA grant to travel to the 10th annual jazz festival in Corinth, Greece.  Following this trip, Gwardyak wrote the piece “Blouzo” for the band with extended solos for the trombone section.

The New England Jazz Ensemble has recorded 4 CDs, including a live recording at the Pittsfield Jazz Festival in 2005 and a Christmas CD featuring the Duke Ellington Nutcracker and other holiday jazz recorded in 2003.  The first and second CDs, as well as the 2005 Pittsfield CD, feature original arrangements and compositions by the band’s composers.

The band has performed with numerous guest artists including, Thomas Chapin, Phil Wilson, Dick Johnson, John Allmark, Shawn Monteiro, George Masso, Art Baron, Nick Brignola, Gerry Neiwood, Ali Ryerson, and Giacomo Gates.

The New England Jazz Ensemble has played in numerous jazz festivals, including the Greater Hartford Jazz Festival, as well as eight consecutive performances of the Ellington Nutcracker with the Hartford Conservatory dance department.