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Old Meets New in Jazz Celebration

Festival Jazz Ensemble Founder Herb Pomeroy Leads 40th Anniversary Show

By Amy Lee

staff writer

MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble and MIT Alumni Band

Conducted by Herb Pomeroy

Kresge Auditorium

May 3, 8 p.m.

Everyone knows that cheese, wine, and blue jeans tend to improve as they age. Apparently, here at MIT, so do jazz musicians. In their last concert of the semester, the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble retraced jazz’s role in music at MIT in a concert led by Herb Pomeroy, the ensemble’s founder. The septuagenarian Pomeroy not only led the 40-year old ensemble in a variety of nostalgic pieces but also helped to throw together a group that called itself the MIT Alumni Band.

The Festival Jazz Ensemble took the stage first. The concert began rather slowly, with lots of one-sided chatting, which unfortunately was prevalent throughout the performance. There was rarely a sluggish aspect to the music, on the other hand.

From the start of the first song, Tom Thumb, composed by Wayne Shorter and arranged by Rich Orr ’62, I couldn’t help but tap my foot along with the beat. The rhythm section produced a relentless drive which held the ensemble together not only though the piece but throughout the concert.

When playing simultaneously within their sections, the saxophones, trumpets, and trombones all blasted out a surprisingly ample sound for their number. However, on the upper dynamics, the trumpets were often overzealous to the point of being raucous while, on the opposite end of the spectrum, when playing solo snippets, the saxophonists were occasionally muted.

In a night of superior musicality from the FJE, two soloists stood out. As the featured pianist in a Pomeroy arrangement of “How My Heart Sings,” by Earl Zindar, Andrew Werner ’03 showed off the more virtuosic side of jazz, both technically and in his stage performance. Werner improvised his way through a cadenza, his feet in convulsions and his whole body swaying back and forth with the motion of his music. He looked like he was channeling a slightly sedated Jerry Lee Lewis.

Nearing the planned end, Werner raised his hands off the piano keys and looked expectantly at Pomeroy, who ignored him. After some audience laughter, Werner continued off on another tangent, deftly running chromatics up and down the keyboard until Pomeroy finally let him off the hook and brought the band back in. This little touch of surprise was nice because it really showcased the extempore side of the music.

My other favorite was tenor saxophonist Alexander Mekelburg ’04, who was featured in several of the pieces. He showed his versatility throughout his solos, playing with a velvety tone on long notes so they lingered in the air, and then quickly transitioning into scat-like fast sections. The syncopated, fragmented sections were especially amazing; I was surprised his face only turned red, not blue.

Four more songs after the piano showcase and lots of talking later, there was intermission so that the MIT Alumni Band could come on stage.

I must admit that visually, the band was absolutely comedic. In place of a stage filled with immaculately dressed, slightly tensed undergrads were a random bunch of white-haired absent-minded professor types, looking very out of place and squished together in the closely placed seats. Add to that Pomeroy in his green suit-jacket, and it was like a screen shot from one of those annoying Canadian public broadcasting fundraising shows.

Although they were less suave than the Jazz Ensemble, the Alumni Band gave a much more outstanding performance. Everything flowed with less effort and, at their dynamic peak, the band kept from being grating, instead forming a sensationally rich sound. More importantly, the old people were visibly enjoying themselves. Instead of walking up to the microphone half a minute before their solos to get prepared, a running-while-playing trend was established. All the musicians got into the act, shaking their heads and stamping their feet to the music.

I loved the saxophone section, which all raised out of their chairs in unison, almost jumping out of their seats in the craziest sections of the pieces like vintage jack-in-the-boxes. I think that those people looking for the energy-boosting elixir of life should turn away from caffeine and look into jazz, because listening to the Alumni Band put a thought in my mind: “Where do these people who graduated before I was born get all this energy? I can’t even stay awake in class.”

After the Alumni Band played a series of pieces, the Jazz Ensemble came back on stage to finish off with three more songs, the last being a Duke Ellington/Eero Koivistoinen medley of their pieces The Star-Crossed Lovers and Kukonpesa. This piece was a great choice for a finale, starting off with an introspective saxophone solo played by Michael Mandel ’04 and then transitioning into an audience-pleasing fast section, showcasing unison saxophone and trumpet segments. Although it wasn’t quite as entertaining as the Alumni Band, the Jazz Ensemble still created a magnetically rhythmic vibe, and they were all clearly playing their hearts out.

Getting this unique opportunity to listen to both the current Jazz Ensemble and the Alumni Band made my night, and if this trend of musicianship ripening continues, I’ll be sure to drag my old self to the “80 Years of Jazz at MIT” celebration.