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CONCERT REVIEW

FJE Needs a Little Jazzing Up

No Star Power: Jazz Ensemble Gives an Almost Ordinary Concert

By Jeremy Baskin
ARTS EDITOR

Festival Jazz Ensemble

Frederick Harris, Jr., conductor

Kresge Auditorium

Nov. 14, 8 p.m.

We’ve had our Joe Lovanos, our Magali Souriaus, our Herb Pomeroys, our Guillermo Kleins, our 30th anniversary extravaganzas, and even our family weekend specials. Over the past few years, Fred Harris has brought the best to MIT to collaborate with the Festival Jazz Ensemble, with each concert billed -- and usually living up to the hype -- as a special, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

But on a windy Friday night in mid-November, we just got the Festival Jazz Ensemble -- no frills, no buy-one-get-one-free specials, no Deus-ex-machina (except for a few last-minute replacement players). The evening, advertised as “Beyond Boundaries: Exploring the Music of Important Jazz Innovators,” featured mostly recognizable tunes from the last fifty years.

Ho hum.

Was there something wrong with me? Why couldn’t I simply enjoy a nice evening of jazz standards with a couple of more recent “future classics”? Have I been led to expect too much? Sometimes in life, when you finally get what you ask for, it turns out that you don’t really like it as much as you had anticipated.

Case and point: I sit at an MIT Symphony Orchestra concert, wishing that I could trade Ives’ Fourth Symphony for Schubert’s Third, or some badly played and uninteresting contemporary piece for a Rossini overture. But when I get what I want, in the form of a Mozart concerto or a Beethoven symphony, it ends up disappointing me even more. Call it the grass-is-greener syndrome.

Well, with frost threatening on Friday night, there was a big pile of mud outside of Kresge Auditorium reminding me that somewhere else there might be greener grass and warm weather. And Joe Lovano.

Not that the evening was completely mundane, though. Two duets stand out: saxophonists Alex M. Mekelburg ’04 and Erik C. Allen G in John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and trombonists Professor Emeritus Samuel Jay Keyser and Daniel M. Halperin ’04 in Frank Foster’s blues tune, “Four-Five-Six,” which finished the show.

It took a while to get going, though. The first half featured Lee Morgan’s R&B-inspired “Sidewinder,” Herbie Hancock’s mellow “Dolphin Dance,” and Horace Silver’s classic “Nica’s Dream,” along with “Genevieve,” a recent composition by French pianist and bandleader Magali Souriau. The notes, changes, and rhythm were there, but the attitude was left backstage.

To make matters worse, the audience was a bit too polite. Perhaps an “applause” sign would have helped. You know, at jazz concerts, you’re supposed to clap after solos; whistling or cheering are not against the rules, either. Maybe MITSO, whose audience includes people who clap when they aren’t supposed to, should trade audiences with FJE.

Something funny, however, must have happened during the intermission -- maybe a beer run or something -- because the second half was a different story.

The FJE jazz combo, unfortunately christened the “Supercosmic Transcendentaldam Orchestra,” began with a rousing rendition of Miles Davis’ “Nardis,” and as soon as Mekelburg’s face was as red as his mouthpiece, I knew the concert had officially begun. The players faced each other, moved around, smiled, bopped their heads, and played outside of the numbing mezzo piano to mezzo forte range. Finally, excitement had come to this concert, and not a minute too soon.

After “Giant Steps,” Kevin T. Chen ’05 played a sweet flugel horn solo in Guillermo Klein’s “Primer Tango.” The background singing by the rest of the band helped to sustain Chen’s subdued solo, before a swinging “Four-Five-Six” finished off the night.

If a little loosening up is all that the FJE needs to make some good music, then you should definitely catch them in some upcoming shows tonight at Ryles Jazz Club in Inman Square or next Tuesday at the Thirsty Ear in the basement of Ashdown dormitory.