Diverse jazz show entertains

The final Williams Jazz Ensemble performance for this year’s departing seniors was a rather unusual one, to say the least. In fact, the Ensemble itself only came together for three (awfully diverse) songs at the end of the program; the rest of the evening saw a number of smaller bands exploring more specialized musical terrain.

It was, I would imagine, an intentionally diffuse and incomprehensive affair, made all the more discontinuous by the fact that the evening’s centerpiece – and in many ways its highlight – was a short set by the Skidmore College Sextet, whose particularly tight playing cast something of a shadow on the performances immediately before and after it.

But this fractured, stop-start aesthetic and emphasis on small outfits did make for a show that was, by Jazz Ensemble standards, relatively freewheeling. It opened, appropriately enough, with the Brian Connors Trio playing “Throwing the Chair,” an unusual little composition by pianist/bandleader Connors ’01. It seems that Connors was paying full attention at last year’s Ensemble finale, of which composer Donald Erb’s “The Hawk” was the keystone: “Chair” adopted Erb’s forceful shifts in tempo and dynamics and applied them to a much less abstract structure. The marriage of experimental play and standard jazz form worked pretty effectively, due to a commanding performance from the rhythm section of bassist Dan Bissex ’02 and drummer Andrea Mazzariello ’00.

Nat Bessey and His Baker’s Dozen (a cross-section of Ensemble members augmented by Gabriela Pereira ’00 on violin and Jason Lucas ’02 on congas) followed, with trombonist Bessey ’00 providing a unique small ensemble arrangement of Chico Boarque’s 1966 composition “Pedro Pedreiro.” That the tune, a social commentary on the plight of Brazil’s indigent migrant workers, came across as fluid, straightforward Latin jazz was a tribute to Bessey’s deft arrangement. The song, written for a simpler, guitar-oriented context, would have sounded too lush for its earthen subject matter in the hands of a less attentive arranger.

Elizabeth Baker ’00 delivered the vocals – sung in Portuguese – with a similar thematic sensitivity. She didn’t try to oversing the piece, which would be completely wrongheaded if recast as a Betty Carter-esque tour de force. This was entirely commendable, but it did cause something of a major problem: in the acoustically disastrous Chapin Hall, vocal performances that aren’t really belted out tend to get lost in the muddy mix. (Ensemble Director Andy Jaffe made note of ongoing efforts to improve the Hall’s acoustic quality; hopefully they will soon make vocal jazz less of a crapshoot).

Continuing the marginally exotic theme developed by “Pedro Pedreiro,” the sextet Creature from the Blue Lagoon performed, in turn, a bossa nova, a piece built on Spanish scale and an Afro-Cuban salsa. Jaffe joined the group on the bossa nova, Lee Morgan’s “Ceora,” adding a light, nimble touch to the proceedings. It came at a particularly good time: since the piece saw several members of the outfit stepping out from their usual instruments, it was less crisp than pensive, downtempo jazz tends to demand.

Creature began to hit its stride, though, with John Coltrane’s “Olé,” and by the time they reached the salsa tune, Kenny Dorham’s “Afrodisia,” at least one couple was dancing in the back of the hall. Creature from the Blue Lagoon is a young band – all of its members are first-years and sophomores – and, if its strengths hold, it should provide future Ensemble concerts with a welcome dose of playfulness.

The only real playfulness the Skidmore Sextet afforded itself came in the form of some incoherent inter-song banter; during the group’s four songs, its great cohesion as a unit was on display. Throughout its set, which opened with a Tom Harrell composition and hit its peak with a lovely rendition of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” the band impressed primarily with its rapport.

This is not to say that its members weren’t capable of fine individual performances – a fine trombone solo elevated the Ellington piece, a very proficient if cheesy tenor saxophonist joined the group on two tunes and the closing number, a Dave Brubeck faux-blues piece, featured a great if slightly overlong drum solo. But what really set the Skidmore players apart wasn’t their raw ability; it was their effectiveness as a group. I’d wager that this bunch – almost certainly the crème de la crème of Skidmore – gets an awful lot of individual instruction (they came with their own director, who spoke of his intimate involvement with them) that just can’t be lavished upon the Williams Ensemble. In any case, suffice it to say that the close attention has paid off.

Unfortunately, Williams’ finest small ensemble, Bessey’s Fat Cat Sampson, didn’t perform during the evening; it would have been nice to follow Skidmore’s tightest, most experienced unit with Williams’ own. On the bright side, the Jazz Ensemble closed the evening with a strong, if peripheral, three-song performance.

The Ensemble opened its set with another Bessey arrangement, this one even more impressive than the first. His adaptation of Johnny Carisi’s Birth of the Cool number “Israel” retained the original’s intimate feel in its new, big band orchestration. The band seemed to take a little while to gel, especially after the Skidmore performance, but an especially fine solo from trumpeter Paul Friedberg ’02 helped to make the outfit’s sound congeal.

It was a good thing, too: a tight band is a necessity for a successful rendition of Ellington’s swing barnburner “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” And, accordingly, the Ensemble turned in its fieriest performance of the evening. Bessey and Andrew Mitchell ’02 led the trombones on some particularly forceful lines, and Jon Salter ’02 turned in an effective clarinet solo.

It was another Ellington piece, though, one of entirely different mood, that brought the show to a wonderful close. Vocalist Kenric Taylor ’00, who had never sung with the Ensemble before, joined it to perform “I Like the Sunrise,” from Ellington’s Liberian Suite, a commission commemorating the African nation’s centennial. The song is beautifully paradoxical – complex in arrangement but simple in tone, optimistic but somehow vaguely melancholic, universal in meaning but specific in purpose – and all parties pulled it off in fine fashion. Taylor’s rich, powerful baritone was poignant and rousing, and the swelling, almost sepia-toned instrumental backdrop was equally lush. It was far and away the best Ensemble concert-closer I’ve seen, and its unpretentious beauty somehow made sense of the most unassuming Williams Jazz Ensemble concert in quite some time.