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Five years of Jazz Ensemble on CD

MIT FESTIVAL JAZZ ENSEMBLE

Debut compact disc.

$8 general, $7 MIT/Wellesley students.

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By MARK ROMAN

MIT'S FESTIVAL JAZZ ENSEMBLE has been making a name for itself over the past several years, through local performances and national festivals. Despite the turnover that comes with a collegiate career, the ensemble has managed overall continuity and consistency. With the release of their debut compact disc, they can now build on that reputation with radio stations and the listening public.

The 11 selections on the disc offer 70 minutes of music, but even at that length the listener won't feel put upon or overloaded. The production is smooth and clean, and the sound a pleasure. The music covers a broad range, demonstrating the versatility in the ensemble's repertoire, from more quiet, contemplative pieces to the full-scale swing normally associated with jazz orchestras. Categorizing the music isn't a very easy thing to do, and as tired as that description gets to be, it is entirely appropriate for describing the ensemble and its work.

Represented on the disc are five years of Jazz Ensemble history, highlighting the involvement of the students who played and the people who took the ensemble beyond a pedestrian student activity and made it into a serious and worthwhile student endeavor. Chief on that list are two champions of the ensemble, Herb Pomeroy and Jamsheid Sharifi '83. Pomeroy, a widely recognized jazz arranger, musician, and educator, organized the band in 1962 and conducted it for 22 years. Under his direction, the Jazz Ensemble earned national acclaim at collegiate jazz festivals, and gained its reputation as an outstanding collegiate band.

Sharifi, a graduate of MIT and the Berklee School of Music, and former member of the ensemble, assumed directorship after Pomeroy. Sharifi's role is particularly notable, in that most of the selections on this disc are his original compositions.

It is this kind of personal involvement and creative input that distinguishes the work of the ensemble from other concert jazz bands, and characterizes the approach of the musicians as well. For many this is not an academic effort, but a matter of personal commitment -- something outside of their academic program which they find the time to do. It is this dedication that has earned the ensemble its well-deserved reputation -- even among music schools -- and has fueled the creation of this album, from the composition, arrangement, and performance of the music, to the engineering, production, and realization of this disc.

Arrangement and direction on the entire disc is first-rate. Larger ensemble work can lapse into an incoherent, unwieldy sound without able direction and charting, while the MIT Jazz Ensemble seems to effortlessly avoid these pitfalls in their performance. Especially pleasing are the quieter pieces, like "Turn" and "Rain," because they demonstrate the musicianship of the entire ensemble and the ability of the trumpeters to elicit the power of their instruments without overplaying. Sharifi's orchestration makes rich use of a variety of instruments and exploits the talents of the musicians. "Crossing Time Zones" demonstrates the technical capability of the group, with parts scored in different time signatures. The best work on the album, however, is "Katarina's First Song," an original composition by Sharifi. The arrangement and performance show the band at its best.

More uptempo and swinging are "Boston Baritone," "One Road," and "Giant Steps," with their rock-solid rhythm and precision. The ensemble builds from a quiet opening on "Giant Steps," to lean, swinging solos from saxophonists Mark Messier '93 and Steve Saito '91, and pianist Michael Valdez '90. The Miles Davis composition, "Tutu," gets a fine reading from the rhythm section and Ray Zepeda '88 on saxophone. The tune seems to extend into something longer than it should be, and while the performance is no liability, it squanders some of the punch it builds in the beginning.

Across all the tunes, however, the saxophonists repeatedly stand out. Their sound is wonderfully tight and cohesive, and the musicianship on the solos remarkable. Witness the soloists' work on "Turn" and "Katarina," and the entire section on "One Road." Zepeda has clear command of his instrument, which is featured on "Turn" and "Katarina," as does Messier on "One Road" or Susan Ward '92 on "The Change," none of which ever sound rehashed or gratuitous.

Where does the ensemble take it from here? Their debut disc illustrates the evolution of some serious musical talent, and gives us a hint at how much potential there is waiting in the wings. The MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble has done remarkably well with this disc, and it should earn further respect among the Boston jazz community, collegiate ensembles, and beyond.

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(The MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble CD will be on sale today in Lobby 10. The ensemble will perform in a CD release concert on Oct. 20 in Kresge at 9 pm.)