It's not enough to load a big band with top-notch musicians. Even the most talented ensemble needs suitably smart musical charts to challenge its skills.
That rare combination of men and material was in effect Saturday when the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra played to an especially enthusiastic audience at the spacious Luckman Theater on the campus of Cal State L.A. A steady progression of fine soloists brought personal spark and character to a host of challenging arrangements of standards. The diversity of the band members, a cross-generational gathering of mostly L.A.-based players, made for strong injections of personality and contrasting styles.
Casting soloists one against another was an often-used technique of arranger, conductor and co-leader John Clayton. In the night's opening number, Clayton's own "I Be Serious 'Bout Dem Blues," he matched 79-year-old trumpeter and Basie veteran Snooky Young and twentysomething trumpet upstart Marcus Printup in an exchange that came across as a melodic street-corner dialogue.
Clayton's arrangements of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," Benny Carter's "Easy Money" and his own "Reverence" carried plenty of brass accents, swooning saxophone accompaniment and rhythmic twists and turns. On Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty," Clayton orchestrated a background of flute, muted trumpets, clarinet and bass clarinet ahead of the pointillistic improvisation of trumpeter Oscar Brashear. Clayton picked up the bass to create a delicate, bowed backdrop for pianist Bill Cunliffe's sensitive work on "For All We Know."
The orchestra's two other leaders, drummer Jeff Hamilton and Clayton's saxophonist-flutist brother, Jeff, gave the band its impeccable swing and stirring sense of soul. Other standout contributors included trombonists George Bohanon and Isaac Smith, saxophonist Rickey Woodard, whose tour of "Georgia" elicited shouts and cheers from the audience, and guitarist Larry Koonse.
Where the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra's set was firmly anchored in the jazz tradition, the 17-piece Cal State L.A. Jazz Ensemble, directed by Jeff Benedict, delivered a more contemporary sound, playing material from such composer-musicians as Bob Mintzer, Jim McNeely and Bob Brookmeyer during its promising opening set.