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Jazz, Dance Highlight Annual Concert

Wind Ensemble and Festival Jazz Ensemble Deliver Engaging Performances for Family Weekend

By Bogdan Fedeles

Staff Writer

Jazzphonic Dances

MIT Wind Ensemble and MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble

Frederick Harris, conductor

Kresge Auditorium

Oct. 17, 8 p.m.

It is Family Weekend, and the parents are here. Nervosity, joy, excitement are so common for anyone receiving guests. And more than that, an audience filled with relatives and friends is a fantastic catalyst for any performer. It so happened that last Friday, MIT Wind Ensemble and MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble delivered their first concert of the year in front of an enthusiastic crowd of parents. The result? Nervosity, joy, excitement.

Under the appealing theme of “Jazzphonic Dances,” director Frederick Harris brought together his two ensembles in a light-hearted, immediate and very enjoyable musical experience. The enthusiastic audience responded with standing ovations at the end of each half. Good music that the audience enjoyed: this is the recipe for a good concert.

In the first half, MIT Wind Ensemble, sporting a refreshing bunch of new members along with some veterans, performed a selection of jazzy, festive music by Scott Joplin, John Chance, Dana Wilson, and Leonard Bernstein, together with the not-so-jazzy but oh-so-beautiful Copland’s “Variations” from Appalachian Spring. In the absence of liner notes, the concert was punctuated by Harris’s fun repartees about music, performers, and -- why not? -- the Boston Red Sox.

All performances were solid and engaging, even the more difficult ones. Joplin’s “Combination March,” reminiscent of fanfare music, was loud but under control. Chance’s “Incantation and Dance” showcased careful intonation, good rhythmic drive and splendid percussion work. The rhythmic stacks in the percussion section sustained a very descriptive and scenic music, momentarily transporting the audience in a distant world of tribal dances and incantations.

Exploring the same theme, Wilson’s “Dance of the New World” mixes the jazz of the 1960s with some influences from Stravinsky and Bartok. In spite of some muddier transitions, the wind ensemble convincingly replicated Wilson’s world of “ethnicities,” showing a good control of dynamics and balance. The Stravinskian episode featuring the solo soprano saxophone of Jordan K. Fabyanske ’06 was especially good.

Copland’s “Variations on a Shaker Melody” from Appalachian Spring was a welcome respite in the middle of the jazzy agitation. The serene flow of the obsessively simple tune reminded me more of snow and winter holidays, but I believe there’s plenty of snow during the spring in the Appalachians. The good clarinet solo of Daniel L. Steele ’06 is worth singling out, together with the powerful tutti sonority of the last variation, happily dominated in part by the French horns.

Bernstein’s “Slava!” (Glory) came as an open tribute to all the families in the audience, the festive music unfolding with passion and enthusiasm. And although the piece seemed to stumble at times, the players’ fervor, as well as the glorious shout at the end, won the audience and concluded the Wind Ensemble’s very good first half.

The second half of the concert featured the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, giving their take on music by jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock, together with music by Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, and Don Menza. You don’t need to be a jazz afficionado to appreciate and love this music, and the Festival Jazz Ensemble clearly proved this point by delivering an accessible performance, with innovative solos and good ensemble work, in spite of the shortcomings in balance between the amplified and non-amplified instruments.

Gillespie’s “Woodyn’ You” opened the program, introducing the audience to the jazz world of the 1950s. In Mike Tomaro’s arrangement, we didn’t get a trumpet solo, but we did get a good piano solo (Drew T. Werner ’04) and an exciting tenor sax solo (Alex M. Mekelburg ’04) that conveyed very well the intensity and humor of the piece.

“Skylark,” by Carmichael and Mercer, constituted the contrasting piece in the program, with its languorous and lamenting sonorities. The long solos on the piano were ably answered by the alto sax (Erik C. Allen G), contouring the surreal world suggested by the title. “Tribute to Miles” followed, a potpourri of some of Miles Davis’ most famous pieces, including “So What,” “Milestones,” and “Seven Steps to Heaven.” The transitions between pieces featured sparkling solos for trombone (Daniel M. Halperin ’04), piano (Werner), alto sax (Alexander D. McMath ’07) and drums (Ethan A. Post ’06). Davis’ tendencies towards fusion jazz were well highlighted in this piece, the ensemble displaying a careful composite sound, both through balance between registers and between contrasting sections of the piece.

Herbie Hancock’s ultra-engaging “Wiggle Waggle” followed naturally Davis’ music. (Hancock has been one of Davis’ most famous students and collaborators). The dance-like qualities of Hancock’s music surfaced with ease, given a careful performance, driven and intense.

Remarkable solos here included piano (Werner), tenor sax (Mekelburg), guitar (Matthew L. Cohen G), and an alto sax-trombone solo duet (McMath and Halperin).

And of course, “all jazz ends with the blues,” as the last piece, Menza’s “Groove Blues,” took off with even more enthusiasm. And although blues, the piece was light and happy, with a potential for uplifting spirits, therefore promptly dedicated by Harris “to our Shakespearian Red Sox.” The exciting performance of the blues offered by the Jazz Ensemble went even beyond that, the exuberance of the finale sending the large audience of the evening into catharsis.