MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble
Horn-Toting Men in Black
MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble
March 2, 8:00 p.m.
On Saturday night, the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, led by conductor Frederick Harris, proved its talent with the show “World Fusions” in Kresge Auditorium. Part of the MIT American Music Series, it featured Natraj, a contemporary jazz group influenced by classical music of India and traditional music of West Africa. To describe a song he composed and performed, Christopher Rakowski ’02, alto saxophone player, wrote a haiku: If things are getting stuffy / Open your window / And let the breeze in. The Festival Jazz Ensemble let the breeze in Saturday night.
They began with two Duke Ellington songs. The first, “Such Sweet Thunder,” was originally titled “Othello.” Though the Shakespeare play is about jealousy and betrayal, “Such Sweet Thunder” seemed simple and set me up for a relaxed evening. The next song, “Agra,” which was darker and with more character, featured Maggie V. Stringfellow ’03 humbly and seamlessly playing the baritone saxophone.
“Tijuana Giftshop,” by Charles Mingus, began with stomping, clapping, and yelling. The musicians had fun with the upbeat Latin rhythm. Andrew C. Thomas ’03 gave a surprise tuba solo that stuck out at first, but eventually came together as he danced with his tuba. Then, Alexander M. Mekelburg ’04 amazed the audience with his tenor saxophone. His face was bright red, but the intense solo made “Tijuana Giftshop” worth it.
Mark S. Harvey came on stage to guest conduct two songs he composed, “Blue Sequence” and “Scamology.” Tom Lotta, on bass, set the groove for “Blue Sequence.” The ensemble followed with energy and ever-present coolness. Jorge Padilla ’05 gave a clear and shining trumpet solo. Some of his notes trailed off with uncertainty, but I loved his sparkling tone.
Harvey introduced “Scamology” by saying, “Be always on your guard for scams that are coming your way. Watch out for scamology.” This song began fast with undertones of rock and roll. The music became loud and angry, like two men arguing at a sports bar. Sophomore Daniel M. Halperin’s brave and brassy trombone solo exploded with pops and wails.
Rakowski performed his song, “The Open Window.” His beautiful alto saxophone solo was backed by drums, piano, and bass. He was beyond amazing.
“The Great Hat,” by Phil Wilson, featured wonderful solos by Jay K. Cameron ’05 on piano, Nathan A. Fitzgerald ’02 on drums, Rakowski on soprano saxophone, and James A. Smith ’03 on alto saxophone.
Then Natraj came on stage, adding another flavor to the performance. Wearing India dress and sitting cross-legged on the floor, only amazing jazz could have convinced me that they were for real. They convinced me.
They played “Meet Me Anywhere,” composed by Phil Scarff, the soprano saxophone player and lead voice of Natraj. He was backed by viola, bass, tabla, and percussion. Phil Scarff played his saxophone magically like a snake charmer. Bertram Lehmann’s percussion solo seemed like the soul of India. Mat Maneri made his viola cry.
The FJE and Natraj played together in the last song, “Raga Jog,” a traditional North Indian song arranged by Phil Scarff. The music began long and slow, almost spiritual, but it ended with startling speed. Padilla’s trumpet solo shone with more bravery than his first. Lehmann pealed off Indian words to the rhythm like his mouth was a drum. The music climaxed and ended to a round of excited applause
I’ve seen the Festival Jazz Ensemble perform many times. They let loose, they bob their heads, they get messy on solos, and Fred Harris dances. This is the kind of jazz I’m used to. But Saturday night, the FJE was polished, almost professional. In jackets and ties, they gave a stunning performance with few mistakes. The music was chill and comfortable. I wouldn’t have minded more booty shaking. Still, the FJE impressed the hell out of me.