Jazz Ensemble: Fall concert delivers classic fare, pleasant surprises

Opening its season on Friday evening, the Williams Jazz Ensemble promised “An Evening of Classical Jazz.” What it delivered was no doubt classical in its way – no bill featuring Mingus, Ellington, Basie and Monk could claim otherwise – but just as noteworthy was the eclectic nature of the show. Tossing Latin jazz, boogie-woogie, non-improvisational jazz and vocal performance together with the requisite classical keystone requires deft handling that neither assimilates nor pointilizes the material; the Ensemble and the three worthy smaller opening groups handled the task with relative aplomb.

By the concert’s announced starting time of 8 p.m., a substantial, if unspectacular, crowd had assembled to watch the Michael Alcee Band’s opening set. Pianist Alcee ’99 led his troupe through an especially unique trio of songs, starting with Brazilian music figurehead Hermeto Pascoal’s “Mirando do Valle.” Alcee’s selection was based on a transcription made by Tom McClung when he and Ensemble director Andy Jaffe recorded with Pascoal. Although it’s a lyrical and pretty piece, “Mirando’s” greatest asset is an insistent chug that keeps the music moving forward.

Alcee’s band followed “Mirando do Valle” with the jazz-country fusion of “Cow Cow Boogie” and his own composition, “Though You’re Gone.” The former was a raucous yet musically adept goof, the latter a tender elegy backed with a surprisingly active rhythm section.

The Bill Lindeke Quintet was next to perform. On paper, its set appeared to signal a straight classicism, opting for the two standards: Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” and Arlen’s “Paper Moon.” But although the elegant “Lady” was performed in the expected manner, pianist Lindeke ’01 and his group creatively rearranged “Moon” as a calypso tune, allowing the rhythm section a chance to shine.

The final opening act was the cryptically named Fat Cat Sampson Band, led by trombonist Nat Bessey ’00. Bessey’s group bookended its set with two of Jaffe’s compositions: “Goose Chase,” an up-tempo shuffle and “So You Say,” a clever arrangement written in the same 5/4 meter as Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Sandwiched in between was Charles Mingus’ gem “Nostalgia in Times Square,” a loose but bluesy piece that allowed substantial room for improvisation among the band’s players.

The opening acts were uniformly solid. Bessey’s group featured the strongest exhibition of talented players, giving trumpeter Paul Friedberg ’01, tenor saxophonist Eric Getty ’02, Bessey himself and pianist Aaron Weinberg ’99 strong solo opportunities. Even the solid rhythm section of bassist Dan Bissex ’02 and Andrea Mazzariello ’00 got in the improvisational act. Although they’ve only been playing together for one semster, the band members have reached an impressive understanding.

Which is not to understate the proficiency of Alcee and Lindeke’s bands, both of which succeeded thoroughly in presenting diverse and difficult set lists. Both incorporated strong vocal performances by Elizabeth Baker ’00 and Hillary Ley ’01, respectively. And while Alcee got nice turns from flutist Kim-Xuan Nguyen ’99 and saxophonist Graham Wehmeier ’99, Lindeke’s strong playing was augmented by the excellent solos of alto saxophonist Bess Berg ’01.

The vast majority of these players perform in the Ensemble as well; many were featured again in the Ensemble’s act. Opening with jazz – and Ensemble – standard Count Basie’s “9:20 Special” and Gil Evans’ arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology,” the Ensemble opened its performance with a piece that was explicitly familiar and one with a now-familiar structure.

From that point, though, things took off in a variety of different directions. Ellington’s “Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies” was, despite its bouncy name, a lovely dirge played, surprisingly, by Nguyen on the flute. “Tin Tin Deo” (featuring solos from Getty and trumpeter Jon Othmer ’02) made thematic sense as a composition in the repertoire of Dizzy Gillespie’s influential big band, but its combination of Cuban and swing influences was unique and captivating. Returning to Ellington, the Ensemble, led by Friedrich, played “Concerto for Cootie,” a set piece in that it adapted non-improvisational classical form to the jazz handbook.

The Ensemble then closed the concert with a frenzied trio of compositions. Jaffe’s clever juxtaposition of Berlin’s “Blue Skies” with Monk’s spinoff “In Walked Bud” provided Baker and Ley with an opportunity to play off of each other, and the two vocalists appeared energized by the opposition. J.J. Johnson’s scorching “Say When” featured one of the evening’s most dynamic solos, an inspired turn from Getty. And an unbilled tribute to the late Betty Carter – “Jazz Is,” a highlight of her repertoire – found Baker and Ley onstage once again, whipping up a lot of noise with enthusiastic assistance from the band itself.

It should come as no surprise that the Ensemble’s performance was skillful and precise. Less expected, though, was that the band, which features first-years in many key positions, was so cohesive. In many cases, the group segments were every bit as impressive as the solos.

In celebrating Carter, the Ensemble closed its show on an appropriate note. The audience that stayed throughout was treated to an evening of skillful playing that honored the past by celebrating its diversity and generally having fun with it. And in turning Carter’s eulogy into a raucous rave-up, the Ensemble drove home her message: that jazz can’t yet be retired to the stuffy world of the historical.