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MIT jazz groups perform in memory of Roy Lamson

Roy Lamson
Memorial Concert
MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble.
Aardvark Jazz Orchestra.
Oct. 29, Kresge Auditorium.

By Dave Fox

Last Thursday afternoon, the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble and the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra presented the first of a series of annual concerts dedicated to the late Roy Lamson, professor emeritus of literature and a founding member of the Council for the Arts.

The Council for the Arts is a group of MIT alumni and friends which was founded to support the arts at MIT. The Roy Lamson Memorial Concert, which celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the group's founding, was both a worthy tribute to Lamson and a showcase for the talents of two of MIT's better jazz groups.

The concert opened with remarks by Jay Keyser, associate provost for Institute life and a friend of Roy Lamson. Keyser discussed some of his personal memories of Professor Lamson, focusing on Lamson's clarinet playing and his jazz group, The Intermission Trio. The audience was treated to a recording of the trio, showcasing Lamson's excellent clarinet technique.

The Festival Jazz Ensemble then took the stage. The ensemble has a history of performing works composed specifically for the group, often by its own members. Under the direction of Jim O'Dell, the ensemble performed four pieces. The first of these was an interesting arrangement of Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments." This tune featured some excellent interplay between the trumpet and trombone sections, as well as solos by trombonist Joel Johnson G and pianist Doug Abrams '96. Abrams displayed a very beautiful keyboard technique, contributing greatly to the tune's overall effect.

The next offering was the world premiere of "No Cry," composed by ensemble alumnus Kurt Steltenpohl '92. This had a quite unconventional near-reggae beat, and the interesting added feature of a duet between flugelhornist Dave Ricks G and baritone saxophonist Ron Soltz G. Tenor saxophonist Mark Messier '93 contributed a thoughtful solo, as did Abrams on piano.

The group then performed "One Road," by ex-ensemble director Jamshied Sharifi. The overall effect was a building up of sound, starting with a single saxophone, to that of the full band, and then lowering the sound level again to finish with the single saxophone. This lent a nice symmetry to the piece. Other highlights were a flugelhorn duet between Ricks and Ali Azarbayejani G and an alto saxophone solo by Susan Ward G.

The ensemble then closed their portion of the concert with "Left Overs," by Albert Collins. This was very spirited, and featured Johnson's trombone, as well as a trombone solo by Brian Tracey G. The piece then went into an interlude with a "small band" effect, with Soltz pumping out an infectious bass line on the baritone sax. Solos were offered by Messier on tenor sax and Ricks on trumpet. This was a very good choice for a closing piece. With this concert, the ensemble showed that the current ensemble is the equal of past lineups. The upcoming months will feature the ensemble playing at various events, and they are well worth hearing.

After a brief intermission, the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra took the stage. The orchestra, directed by trumpeter and music lecturer Mark Harvey, performs both great works in the jazz tradition and Harvey's own compositions, which are often daring in their originality. The orchestra's sound varies from structured to "free" jazz; in this concert, the sound was somewhat more structured than in past performances.

The orchestra began their performance with a Duke Ellington/Juan Tizol composition, "Caravan." This opened with hand drumming by Craig Ellis in an African style. Flute and trombone were added, and the sound was built up to that of the full orchestra. The overall sound was very "fat," giving a certain authority to the music. Harvey's use of two basses (John Funkhouser on upright and Jerry Edwards on electric) no doubt contributed to the powerful sound, making this a worthwhile innovation. Other highlights of the piece were an excellent soprano sax solo by Phil Scarff, and a drum solo by Harry Wellott using mallets. The drum solo was highly effective, with varying dynamic levels.

The next piece was "DayDream," by Billy Strayhorn. This was a slow ballad, featuring absolutely masterful alto sax work by Arni Cheatham. Cheatham's playing was highly expressive, and he used the altissimo register of the saxophone to great effect. The overall sound of this ballad was very beautiful, with good balance between Cheatham's sax and the rhythm section.

For a change of pace, the orchestra performed an excerpt from "Crossings," Harvey's ambitious composition which was inspired by musings on the Colombian Quincentennial. The excerpt was very fast, with spirited vocalization by Jerry Edwards. This vocalization was in the "scat" and performed at an energetic pace. The excerpt presented a nice contrast to the preceding ballad.

Harvey then brought vocalist Donna Hewitt-Didham on stage to perform Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me." Hewitt-Didham was very expressive, and she showed a good range and beautiful vocal tone quality. Jay Keyser contributed a nicely executed muted trombone background behind the vocals, as well as an excellent trombone solo. This ballad was utterly beautiful.

The closing piece was "Zippy Manifesto," another of Harvey's compositions. The "Zippy" in the title refers to the cartoon character, and Harvey humorously noted that it was an appropriate work for performance in a presidential campaign season.

The piece began with a musical "conversation" between the bass clarinet of assistant professor of music Evan Ziporyn and Harvey's trumpet. This led to a frantic section of free jazz, which led in turn to a more structured section featuring the low brasses playing against the saxes and trumpets. This was followed by another free jazz section, climaxing in a trombone solo by Dave Harris. Harris used his trombone to produce many different sounds, several of which sounded quite humorous. This gave way to a tenor sax solo by Tom Hall, and then a French horn solo by Marshall Sealy. The horn solo was very smooth and expressive, a contrast to Hall's frantic tenor playing. As Sealy played his horn, the reeds added a sort of undercurrent below him, reminiscent of unruly children babbling below an adult speaking.

Brad Jones then played a solo, starting on baritone sax and finishing on soprano sax. The rhythm section came in during the solo, and then the full band came in gradually. The piece ended with a somewhat frenetic pace, with Jim O'Dell getting the last word in on his tuba. Overall, it was a highly unusual and interesting piece.

The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra demonstrated great versatility, moving from expressive ballads to serious free jazz with remarkable ease. The instrumentation allowed a wide range of sounds to be produced, and this, coupled with Harvey's imaginative composing and the virtuosity of the musicians, results in thought-provoking music that cannot be categorized. The fine performances by both the Festival Jazz Ensemble and the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra made the First Annual Roy Lamson Memorial Concert a fitting tribute to Roy Lamson, and a rousing success as well. This concert series is a worthwhile addition to the MIT music scene, and future Roy Lamson Memorial concerts should be well worth attending.