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Charles Bubeck and Daniel Ian Smith with John Baboian, Victor Belanger, and Brooke Sofferman

Killian Hall

Friday, Oct. 19, 2007

Two Fridays ago, I took advantage of one of the numerous arts events that take place on our very own campus. You don’t have to go very far to discover a new performance at MIT — just check the MIT arts newsletter. I was surprised when a handful of my arts-inclined friends didn’t even know such a newsletter existed. Killian Hall (14W-111) serves as a home to many local performers, and Charles Bubeck and Daniel Ian Smith are no strangers to the intimate and cozy performance space we’re blessed with at MIT.

At around 7:30 p.m., when the show was scheduled to start, a small sampling of older women seated in the first couple of rows were chatting; they were evidently the wives and friends of the performers. I took a seat in the very front (the best way to see jazz is up close and personal), studying the stage set up and instrumentation. I knew I was seeing a quintet — vibraphone (Charles Bubeck), saxophone (Daniel Ian Smith), guitar (John Baboian), upright bass (Victor Belanger), and drums (Brooke Sofferman). After about 15 minutes, three more undergraduates joined the audience, dispersing themselves in the back half of the space; two of them were from Berklee College of Music.

Sadly, the MIT community missed an extremely entertaining and rich showcase of forward-thinking compositions. Smith, clearly the leader and voice of the group, introduced the band and kicked right into “Where or When,” one of his own compositions. The quintet, led by Bubeck and Smith, just recently released a record under the Big and Phat Jazz Productions label. At the show, they played through the whole record, save for the last song which Smith swapped for a tune he wrote for his wife, called “My Silent Song.”

Since I haven’t had too many encounters with the vibraphone in my past experiences with jazz, I was impressed by Bubeck’s stage presence and also his playing and ability to shift in and out of a hierarchy of instruments. He colored the sections of the songs that needed decoration, and pulled out when necessary.

The chemistry between Bubeck and Smith, friends since their undergraduate days, was apparent. The two traded solos seamlessly, and Smith was always smiling and chuckling as Bubeck became more absorbed in the vibraphone. Baboian, on guitar, was a little too far back in the mix. Physically, his amp was placed back against the far wall. He also sat down to play, which detracted from his presence, and as a guitar player myself I wanted to hear more of him. When you could hear him, though, it was obvious that he drew a lot of influence from Pat Metheny — their tones are almost identical. On “Bossa Baboian / King Gypsy,” two back-to-back Baboian compositions, he really stood out as he introduced the two-part suite with an astounding guitar passage that indicated some classical guitar training.

I was pleased with the drumming of Brooke Sofferman, whose eyes were closed during the majority of the set, and found him to be an integral member of the onstage personality of the group. On “Big John’s Song,” Sofferman introduced polyrhythms, triplets, and time signature changes that prompted a mid-song response from Smith, who smiled and encouraged Sofferman to keep going. After the song, he turned to Sofferman and exclaimed, “You gotta do more of that stuff!”

The only member I wasn’t too impressed with was Victor Belanger, who is also a member of the MIT staff. Undoubtedly Belanger is an accomplished bass player and soloist, yet the amplified tone of his bass stuck out and muddied up the lower half of his notes. During solos, it was apparent that either the group didn’t pay too much attention to the tone of Belanger’s bass, or that they were satisfied with an average sound. At times it sounded too tinny and trebly, completely lacking the essence of the upright bass.

The song that stood out most in the set was a Smith composition, “A Light From the Clouds.” This song, 12 minutes on CD and almost 15 minutes live, began with a droning, ambient introduction. Smith blew air through his sax, merely hinting at notes every so often, and Baboian took advantage of his volume pedal to swell in and out of haunting chords. Visually, Sofferman was most adept at conveying these ominous sounds — he moved his hands back and forth between cymbals, dragging the ends of his sticks across the bell to produce screeching and hissing sounds. Bubeck made use of the sides of his vibraphone, beating them with an assortment of sticks. While stuck in a trance, I suddenly noticed that at some point the musicians drifted from these ambient noises to structured melodies. The song evolved and built upon itself — a totally organic success on stage and on the new record.

In the days after the show, I had the opportunity to speak with Bubeck and Smith via e-mail to discuss the show and their future as a quintet. “I will say that in spite of the size of the crowd, it was an incredibly enthusiastic audience and I’d like to believe that is the result of the music we shared,” said Smith, now a professor at Berklee. “I’ve played concerts for hundreds of people that weren’t as enthusiastic. … We play this music for the music, not for the numbers that show up.” I wondered if his status as a professor affected his musical career: “Actually, since I started teaching in Boston, my professional performing career has blossomed. My academic background opens doors to other performance opportunities in different parts of the world.”

Bubeck, while not an academic professor at a university, still finds an opportunity to instruct interested students. “[I teach] private students — piano [and] drums. I also teach the jazz band at our local high school.” The accomplished percussionist, who cites Bobby Hutcherson, Sonny Rollins, and Lee Morgan as his musical influences, said he would “love to do another record [with the current quintet]. The chemistry is great.”

Smith agreed, offering that “everyone has an opportunity to contribute compositions to the repertoire, which certainly keeps things fresh and makes everyone feel like they have an equal role in the quintet.” That is probably what is most surprising (and pleasing) about the quintet’s latest record: though directed by Bubeck and Smith, the diversity of all the different composers elevates the level of intensity and emotion on the album.

When prompted about jazz in the mainstream, Smith was wise and straightforward: “I can only hope that today’s listeners will open their ears and souls to [jazz], as much of today’s ‘pop-music’ is pretty low on the musical content scale. It’s much more image and hype driven … Blood, Sweat, and Tears and Chicago are great examples of mainstream pop groups that always have had a foot in the jazz idiom given instrumentation, harmonic, and melodic content, and … improvisation built in to their compositions.”

Though Bubeck and Smith had been talking about developing such a project for a long time, it took them almost 20 years to finally establish the quintet that performed in Killian two weeks ago. Several trips between Washington, D.C. and Boston allowed Bubeck and Smith to trade compositions, rehearse with each other, and develop a relationship that strengthened and solidified the current lineup and repertoire.

As Smith proudly mentioned, “I’ve performed and recorded at MIT many times over the last 15 years.” If he comes back, though, I hope I’m not the only one there to enjoy the show.