Jazz Ensemble commemorates Ellington

On Friday evening, the Williams College Jazz Ensemble took to Chapin Hall to play its final concert of the 1998-99 season. It was a commemorative show in two ways – not only was it the swan song for the band’s departing seniors, but it was also a celebration of the recent 100th birthday of the late jazz composer and bandleader Duke Ellington.

Further adding to the excitement was the fact that the Ensemble chose to close its program with Donald Erb’s 1979 composition “The Hawk.” Not only was Erb (currently on campus as a visiting composer) present at the performance, but he also attended rehearsals and offered advice to the players. “The Hawk” was also a feature for guest soloist Bruce Williamson, last seen performing with pianist Art Lande as part of Jazztown ’99 festivities.

Opening for the Ensemble was the Fat Cat Sampson Band. Trombonist Nat Bessey ’00 led the sextet – also including pianist Aaron Weinberg ’99, drummer Andrea Mazzariello ’00, saxophonist Eric Getty ’02, trumpeter Paul Friedberg ’01 and bassist Daniel Bissex ’02 – through a pair of seamlessly executed jazz standards.

The band started its brief set with a jazz version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s samba classic “Agua de Beber” arranged by Weinberg before moving on to Wayne Shorter’s tuneful “Yes or No.” In the space of just these two songs, the members of Fat Cat Sampson evinced an exemplary understanding of their bandmates and of the music they performed. Bessey, Getty and Friedberg delivered impressive solos, and the group as a unit was cohesive and economical.

The Jazz Ensemble began its program, “Ellington: Starting a Second Century,” with Peter Hand’s “Island of the Heart,” a bossa nova tune marked by an acoustic guitar accompaniment from Jason Ennis. Graham Wehmeier ’99 soloed on tenor saxophone, while Hilary Ley ’01assumed vocal duties.

Ellington’s “Cottontail,” a seminal bebop composition written in 1941, was selected for the performance by Ensemble director Andy Jaffe for its “angular melodic line and fast tempo,” sharp contrasts to the languid elegance of “Island of the Heart.” The song gave the band a workout and elicited a strong solo from Bess Berg ’01 on alto sax.

Another Ellington classic followed, the 1930s concerto “Boy Meets Horn.” The piece was in many ways a showcase for the trumpet work of Jon Othmer ’02, who made effective use of the “half-valve” technique original trumpeter Rex Stewart employed on the piece: by only partially depressing the valves of his instrument, Othmer conjured a vocal performance of sorts.

“Masquerade” is not an Ellington composition, but it has a direct connection to the legend: his former saxophonist Rick Henderson penned the song (Henderson visited Williams earlier in the decade). The piece featured the vocals of Elizabeth Baker ’00 along with a solo turn from trumpeter Friedberg.

Ellington’s great “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” a 1938 tune that did not come to prominence until nearly two decades later, brought a fitting and exciting end to the celebration of the jazzman’s centennial. The piece is a compositional knockout: it opens at maximum volume and tension before cooling down and peaking again later (led, surprisingly, by a clarinet). It not only turns jazz convention on its head, but it also exhibits stylistic subtlety and breadth, fluently incorporating swing elements into its jazz skeleton.

“Diminuendo” was highlighted by excellent improvisation from Getty, along with solos from Ross Hammond ’99 on trumpet and Eric Bellucci ’02 on trombone. Jon Salter ’02 led the Ensemble through the second major crescendo of the piece with confident work on the clarinet.

Jaffe commented in his program notes that Ellington “always brought out the best in his players by writing to their individual strengths, never forcing parts on them which did not fit their personal styles.” It was to the Ensemble’s credit that this came across regardless of the players involved. The Ensemble delivered what was, by and large, loose and comfortable execution on the Ellington pieces.

The evening came to a close with Erb’s “The Hawk.” More self-evidently “composed” than the other works performed, “The Hawk” is technically very demanding, making considerable use of radical shifts in tempo and dynamics. The Ensemble handled these essential contrasts with precision without losing sight of the piece’s fluidity, and Williamson’s solo turn was a tour de force.

The concert suffered from some technical glitches – including problems with Chapin Hall’s new public address system – which forced the Jazz Ensemble to repeat “Masquerade” so that Baker’s vocals were audible. In general, however, it was a successful summation of the band’s season, allowing the Ensemble to show off its band unity while making room for individual improvisation.

And it struck a nice balance between past – celebrating the contributions of Duke Ellington to jazz and graduating seniors to the Ensemble – while remaining focused on the present and future, as represented by the inclusion of Erb’s piece and the emphasis placed on this year’s newcomers.

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