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Festival Jazz Ensemble’s Got Rhythm

MIT Group Dazzles With ‘Transformations’ of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington

By Ashley Robinson

MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble

Kresge Auditorium

March 13, 8 p.m.

On Saturday, MIT’s Festival Jazz Ensemble transformed Kresge into an intimate setting for Jazz. The concert, entitled “Transformations,” explored how musicians rearrange an already existing piece, thus transforming it into an original. To fully appreciate this concert, one needed a well-tuned jazz “ear” to pinpoint the differences and similarities of a piece and its transformation. However, Music Director Frederick E. Harris Jr. provided not only the history of the pieces, but careful instructions on how to listen to them. As a helpful guide, Harris would instruct the audience, “Now make sure you catch the ‘be-do-be-do-be-da-bop’ in the last measure.”

Through the entire show the musicians gave an outstanding performance. Each soloist perfectly captured the music’s emotion. Even when there wasn’t a solo, each musician played with an almost tangible energy. The first half was filled with noteworthy pieces. The ensemble warmed up the audience with “All of Me.” The original composition, written by Seymour Simons and Gerald Marks, was flat and slow. However the rearrangement by Quincy Jones literally breathed life into this piece, with a great solo by Kevin T. Chen ’05. The next piece, “Solitude,” was played with a slower tempo than the famous vocal version by the great Billie Holiday. But the tenor saxophone solo by Alexander M. Mekelburg ’04 almost rivaled Billie’s. “Solitude” ended with a smooth transition into “Misty,” which opened with a flawless performance by Jorge Padilla ’05 on the flugelhorn.

In the next piece, “I Got Rhythm,” Ethan M. Fenn ’04 flexed his own arranging abilities. Using only a subset of the ensemble, Fenn created a unique variation of the famous tune. A highlight of the piece was the mini-duet between the bass and drums. Fenn also made creative use of the trombones, saxophones, and trumpets with each instrument playing over the other but still somehow playing as one. It was very exciting to see a fellow student share such creativity.

The first half ended strongly with a frenzied paced “Cotton Tail” by Duke Ellington. Unfortunately, this strong finish was followed by a weak open in the second half with two pieces by Gerry Mulligan. However, the ensemble recovered with its investigation of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” Nicknamed a “tonal portrait,” this piece was just as visually stimulating as it was auditory. The piece started with an African beat provided by the percussion, bass, and piano. Then the trumpets and trombones chirped, mimicking the sounds of animals. Throughout the entire piece, the listener almost feels as if they are in an actual caravan, seeing the landscape around them and feeling the rhythm of the travel.

Continuing with the theme of transformations, “Caravan” was followed with its rearrangement “Diakalan.” Although it kept the percussion of “Caravan,” the rhythm was peppier than its predecessor. Daniel M. Halperin ’04 gave an impressive solo on the trombone. The second half ended with an insane performance by the drummer David M. Aaronson’07 in the piece “Blues and the Abstract Truth.” Aaronson would tease the audience with quick changes in tempo and rhythm, repeatedly speeding up and then slowing to a standstill only to pick up the pace again. Truly an exciting performance.

Overall the concert was great, but that should be expected from the Festival Jazz Ensemble. It’s an absolute shame that Kresge isn’t packed when they play. But for those of you who would like to know what you are missing out on, the ensemble is selling their most recent recording, “The Tale of the Sky Swimmer.” Their next performance is Friday, April 23, and is definitely worth checking out.