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MIT ensemble brings welcome freshness to Jazz Festival

Collegiate Jazz Festival

New England Collegiate Jazz Festival Concert

Featuring the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble and Phil Woods.

Hosted by James O'Dell.

By Craig K. Chang
Staff Reporter

The concert that ended last Friday's New England Collegiate Jazz Festival almost proved to be too much for participating musicians, who endured adjudication and master classes all day. The first two ensembles to perform were the University of Massachusetts Jazz Ensemble and the University of Rhode Island Jazz Ensemble, which both seemed a bit groggy. But with great anticipation, Phil Woods and the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble saved the night by injecting some life and thought into the increasingly tired atmosphere.

The choice of repertoire of the first two ensembles hurt their performances. On top of a low energy start, the UMass Jazz Ensemble toiled through pieces which seemed derivative and stale. Even the move into pieces of more urgent tempo failed to launch the group's energy, and instead dragged the group along with what sounded like old show tunes and monotonous soundtracks. No doubt this impression passed many minds during what seemed a parody of bad television music.

The URI Jazz Ensemble too suffered poor taste in music. As an apt gesture of surrender to public appeal, the group played an old classic popularized by Sleepless in Seattle, "When I Fall in Love." And with other pieces with such names as "Afterburner," nothing about their playing could be taken seriously.

The MIT Jazz Ensemble also got off to a shaky start. But things began to piece together when Phil Woods stepped on stage with ultimate professionalism. The sound of his saxophone resonated throughout Kresge with a true, confident voice and brilliant technique. But, unlike the soloists of the two previous groups, his playing never seemed overdone. He blew his horn with the cool confidence and articulation of a supremely experienced artist.

Phil Woods was, however, by no means a crutch that the MIT Jazz Ensemble leaned on. In Phil Woods' "Quill," Susie Ward and Josh Goldberg gave impassioned saxophone solos that came from their hearts. When the saxophonists passed riffs back and forth in a three-way call and response, the music of the night returned to a form of expression instead of mindless strings of bop clich.

Even with the spotlight on Phil Woods, the MIT Jazz Ensemble demonstrated what jazz music is all about in its "Variation on a theme by Jimi Hendrix; Manic Depression." With this piece, the group managed to capture a whole palette of emotions through its instruments. As the piano played a drunken ostinato, we could picture a figure dancing in circles, in some sort of hallucinatory state. Melancholy rubbed against furor and aural mania. The winds layered a hauntingly serene ambiance over Damon Bramble's violent solo. With these emotional intimations, the performance appeared to have the quality of aural painting that proved the ensemble had the skill and power to project unique abstraction instead of worn-out convention.