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Setlist produces mixed results for jazz ensemble

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@Eventname:Festival Jazz Ensemble

@Eventdesc:International Association<\n>Of Jazz Educators Conference.

Sheraton Boston Hotel.

January 13, 1994.

@ByName:By Christopher Chiu


@Dropcap:In a sense, musicians can be divided into two groups. On one side there are performers who will never play new compositions. These performers are content to simply play old warhorse tunes that are well known and have been critically acclaimed for the past millennium. This is especially true in the Classical world, where there are literally hundreds of pianists who specialize in playing pieces of only a single composer, or perhaps a certain period. On the other side are performers who put their talents to another use. While they may play a few reliable standbys once in a while, they are much more progressive. They believe in the growth of music, and will dare to play pieces that are fresh, new, and interesting. Not everything that is new is good, of course, but in the name of progress they serve an important role in the music world.

@Body:The MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble lies in the second of these two spheres. For three decades or so, this group has premiered many pieces from new (and in some cases unknown) composers, with little fanfare. Their performance on Thursday continues in that vein; it was the opening performance at the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference. To their credit, their setlist was rather progressive; some of the pieces were written recently by composers present in the audience. However, if there were a Ten Commandments for musicians, one of them would be to choose pieces that suit the performer’s skills. True, it is important for any performer to take a chance every now and then, but the key is to pick something that is within his or her limits. In their performance on the 13th, the MIT ensemble’s choices violated this rule several times, thus yielding mixed results.

The problems began with their first piece, an arrangement of Ray Charles’ “Rockhouse.” The brass section, in part perhaps due to difficulties with the sound system, sounded cohesive but terribly harsh. This led right into the alto saxophone solo by Damon Bramble ’97, which was aimless and more of a finger exercise than anything else. The rhythm section did provide excellent support, however, and the highlight of the piece came towards the end, with an excellent, incisive solo from guitarist Dan Hosken G.

The band continued with a composition by Darrell Katz that was entitled, “Variations on a Theme — Manic Depression.” This was a dubious choice for several reasons. For one thing, the title itself was misleading — this composition was not a theme and variations, but a sort of medley based on Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression.” In fact, as even the composer himself stated, only perhaps a third of the piece was composed by Hendrix — and even that part was difficult to discern. Worse still, the performance itself was muddled, as the band had serious problems keeping together and in time. Add yet another misguided alto saxophone solo from Bramble and an annoying, half-hearted, misfit guitar chord at the very end of the piece, and the result was a huge bomb.

That was not the most disappointing piece, however. That award goes to their last number, “Blues for Red” by Jamshied Sharifi. If the band had showed poor judgment before, here it reached its climax. This piece was simply too technically difficult for the ensemble to handle. It had syncopated chorus and response sections with very demanding rhythm patterns. In this case, the band simply was not up to the task and was disorganized, so that the piece stumbled and fell to pieces. The only flashes of life were a stellar, pointilist solo from Solomon Douglas ’96 on piano and a fiery soprano saxophone solo from Susan Ward G, but these turned out to be only temporary respites from utter chaos.

However, all this should not cast a pall on the entire performance. Witness “Lola,” by Guillermo Klein. In this piece, the band showed welcome restraint. This was a charming tune that featured a nice blending of the saxophone section. The solos, too, were an improvement. The trombone solo by Eric Scheirer was muted and mellow — almost like a lonely old man on a park bench, waving hello. The piano accompaniment by Douglas was airy and light; perfect in that it didn’t obscure the solo but played around it and complemented it. This piece showed the band in its best light, with excellent use of soloists, and interesting musical contrasts.

As if to strengthen this point, the very next piece, John LaPorta’s “Crossing Time Zones,” succeeded for many of the same reasons that “Lola” did. It contained two fascinating, contrasting solos by Josh Goldberg ’96 on alto saxophone and Joel Johnson G on trombone; Goldberg’s solo was brilliant and showed good technique, while Johnson’s was less flamboyant and more melodic. The key for both solos was that they were both in context and made musical sense within the piece. The rhythm section kept the band in time, and the ensemble truly swung.

Perhaps their performance of Bob Nieske’s “Teacher” was most indicative of the entire show’s effect. Here again the band had serious problems with the rhythmic arrangements; the trumpets sounded incoherent and out of time. What saved the piece was yet again some superb solo work. Bramble redeemed himself on tenor saxophone and finally showed some of his tremendous talent. Instead of trying to play as many notes as possible, he started phrasing notes together and came up with some beautiful melodic swirls. He was joined Ali Azarbayanjani G on Flugelhorn for a duet of sorts that showed excellent intonation.

Afterwards, the listener may reflect on the facts: True, the Festival Jazz Ensemble may have overreached itself in its setlist choices. True, they may need work on staying together and in tempo. However, the dazzling array of solos throughout the performance practically kept the listener rooted to his seat. The rhythm section, especially Douglas and Hosken, played admirably with little attention from the audience (perhaps they should have been given a separate ovation!). And most of all, despite a few stumbles, the band accomplished what it set out to do: with pardons to Gene Roddenberry, it sought strange, new music, to boldly go where no musician had gone before.