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Bops With Joe Lovano

MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble

By Allison Lewis

staff writer

MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble

Kresge Auditorium

May 10, 8:00 pm

World-renowned jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano took the stage with the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble and wowed the crowd with charm and sax. Bearded and suave in his suit and silver jacket, Lovano plays like he looks -- big and stylish.

The first couple of tunes, both written by Lovano, featured FJE’s rhythm section -- bass and drums -- behind Lovano, soulful, boppy, and free on tenor sax. In the fast and furious “Flights of Fancy,” drummer Nathan Fitzgerald set up a solid beat that he kept throughout the night. Slowing down for “Sanctuary Park,” Thomas A. Lada G danced with his bass in a convincing solo. Joe Lovano, in the forefront, captured the audience with his alternately whining and exploding tenor sax.

Mark Harvey, lecturer in music, trumpeter, and founder of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, composed and wildly conducted the world premiere of “Saxophrenea,” an eclectic, free-spirited tune that relies on the musicians’ own interpretation and improvisation. The FJE saxophone section and Lovano (on soprano sax) began by blowing through their horns as if they were trying to empty their spit. One by one, they evolved into chaotic quacks, pops, squeaks, burps, and swirls. Maggie V. Stringfellow ’03, a commanding presence in black boots, laid down a deep and solid sound on baritone sax. Alex M. Mekelburg ’04, his face the shade of a strawberry, worked and revved his tenor sax like a slick machine.

“You Don’t Know What Love Is” featured Jorge Padilla ’05, brilliant and shining on fluegel horn, and Chris Rakowski ’02 amazing as always on alto sax. Lovano and remarkable guest pianist Ran Blake (from New England Conservatory) ended the first half quietly with David Raksin’s “Laura,” a beautiful, romantic duet.

The FJE banged into the second half with some well-played nonet pieces (for four saxophones, trombone, trumpet, piano, drums, bass). In “On a Misty Night,” written by Tad Dameron and recorded on Lovano’s album 52nd Street Themes, Rakowski’s saxophone sang out simply and melodically, and Kevin T. Chen ’05 raced, jingled, and swung on piano. The highly flammable Mekelburg absolutely caught fire in “Good Bait,” also by Dameron. I was less impressed with “Star Dust;” it’s hard to top a Louis Armstrong interpretation.

Magalie Souriau’s gorgeous “Bastien” was the song of the night. Written for Souriau’s twelve-year-old nephew, this tune goes beyond the spirit and warmth of youth, beginning as simple and naive as kite flying and aging into something tragic and beautiful. Daniel M. Halperin ’04 charmed everyone with a colorful wah-wah trombone solo.

“Bastien” glided into “Sue’s Changes,” by Charles Mingus. Written for his wife, Sue Mingus, it’s obvious at once that this song conveys her many moods: quiet, serene, sexy, vibrant, dancing, loud, busy, bossy, angry, violent, and calm. Rakowski and Mekelburg went at it, in a pugilistic conversation between alto and tenor saxophone that provided comic relief.

They ended with Mingus’ “Unslinging Bird Funk O’Rama,” for which the name says it all. This tribute to Charlie Parker began with Lada on electric bass. Halperin’s complex and funky trombone solo was followed by a string of more wonderful solos: Jay K. Cameron ’05 on piano, Andrew C. Thomas ’04 on trombone, Fabian S. Jones ’05 on tenor sax, Mekelburg, Rakowski, and, finally, Lovano. Joe and the saxes slung their guns. Nate Fitzgerald ripped at his drums. The hilarious on-stage craziness, like a barroom gunfight in some old cowboy movie, ended with an explosively awkward but satisfying chord. The applause was long, loud, and honest.

Every once and a while something great comes to MIT. We were lucky to spend the evening with Joe Lovano, and even more lucky the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble will be around for a while.