Williamstown Jazz Festival concludes on sweet high note

This weekend, the Williams music department held its fourth annual Williamstown Jazz Festival. The events revolved around intercollegiate jazz adjudications featuring groups from Smith College, Amherst College, Skidmore College, University of Massachusetts-Amherst and other local colleges, and of course Williams’ own Jazz Ensemble. The events began April 2 with a Salsa/Casino dance class led by Sandra Burton, assistant professor of physical education. Burton lectured at the Clark Art Institute that evening on the role dance played in jazz music.

The festival culminated in concerts on Friday and Saturday, hosted in Chapin Hall. The Boyer Brothers, natives of Florida and veterans of the college circuit, having performed or lectured at a string of colleges ranging from Harvard and Yale to Tuskegee and the Harlem School of the Arts, gave a stirring performance in a gospel concert on April 5. A Latin Dance Party followed, thrown at MASS MoCA, with music featuring renowned trombonist Jimmy Bosch.

The pinnacle of the week’s events was certainly the Grammy Award-nominated Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, who took over Chapin Hall on Saturday night. This was a concert not to be missed by any jazz enthusiast – or indeed any music lover – and I felt particularly sorry to see empty seats left in Chapin.

The big band orchestra, led by saxophonist Jeff Clayton, bassist and conductor John Clayton (the former president of the International Society of Bassists, who was incidentally also a naturally charismatic emcee on the microphone) and percussionist Jeff Hamilton, also featured famous trumpet player Eugene “Snooky” Young and a tremendous amount of talent evenly spaced throughout the nineteen-piece band. They employed a wide and varied repertoire, from several different genres of jazz, to give the audience a good show. The combination of individual musicians and their interaction with the audience led to a moving performance.

They were not only capable of the most impressive sound production, but were also able to utilize an inspirational amount of control as they explored the undersides and nuances of each piece, using clarinets, flutes and muted brass – some of the most beautiful colors available to the big band sound.

In his introductory remarks, Clayton focused on his perception of his band as an amalgamation of individuals, of unique personalities and sounds. He emphasized that the audience would be given the chance to meet each of the players, by way of their music, throughout the course of the concert. This was pleasing to hear, since it meant that all the players in the orchestra – a big ensemble – would be given the chance to solo at one time or another.

The orchestra started with a classic, arranged from a Count Basie tune. The orchestra came out strong and together, with a huge sound, but still very together and jiving.

But before the booming orchestra got started, the bandleader, John Clayton, introduced himself with a very cool, crisp bass solo. It was very pleasant to get the first impression of the conductor as a musician, not just a figurehead. And it was even more pleasant because it quickly became obvious that Clayton was not only a great musician, but also a dynamic and energetic conductor.

His conducting motions were reminiscent of Cab Calloway’s style, putting on a huge show with his hands; instead of beating a tempo, Clayton directed the line of music and highlighted individual parts. The powerful introduction quickly swayed most of the audience in the band’s favor.

The second song, “Jazz Party,” featured an alto saxophonist with a very hot sound. His style was exciting, but although he ran up and down the scales a lot, he refrained from taking any giant leaps across the range of his instrument. Following the alto solo, the audience was presented with a tenor solo to counter the alto.

Soon, the two players began a playful call and response between each other, building higher and higher, also receiving responses from the band. During this song, the audience was also further introduced to the drummer, Jeff Hamilton, a key member of the band. Hamilton’s delicate and melodic touch on the drums impressed his talent upon the audience, making it very clear that he could do a lot more with the drums than just keep the beat.

The next song featured Hamilton further, with a brushed drum solo piece. Called “Back Home Again Indiana,” the Hogie Carmichle piece showed off how much music Hamilton could squeeze out of two brushes and a snare drum. For long periods of the song, Hamilton concentrated on the snare drum – emphasizing the different sounds it could spin out – along with the light texture of the song and his own skill at percussion, including the patently difficult one-handed roll that he made look so effortless.

Of particular note among the group’s repertoire were the Bebop selections. The two major pieces the orchestra played from this genre were Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” and a variation on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Sunny Side Up,” called “The Eternal Triangle.”

In general, the orchestra had a very big band, swinging sound, and encountered difficulty making the Bebop tunes sound distinctly different. In a band with so many horns (five trumpets, four trombones, and five saxophones), it is understandably difficult to generate the small group groove that the Bebop revolution is famous for.

Although both tunes were clearly very different in chord structure and solo variety than the other pieces, they still sounded too much like the other big-band songs the group played.

Through the course of the evening, Clayton’s promise to introduce the audience to each member of the band musically, was fulfilled. But it was not until the last song of the set – the orchestra’s original blues number, “Shout Me Out” – that Chapin was really blown away by the soloists. In a clearly calculated move of saving their big guns for the finale, “Shout Me Out” featured a trombone call-and-response solo. The trombonist would play a few carefully selected blues notes, and the entire band would respond vocally – a cappella. It was a dramatic and moving example of Africanism, which features the traditionally-vocal call and response.

After a few unspectacular solos by the bass and guitar, Jeff Clayton, a member of the original trio, stepped forward to solo. With his alto saxophone looking so small in comparison to his enormously powerful body, it was almost humorous. Musically, he ran all over the place on his seemingly miniature horn and used every pitch-bending technique in the book.

However, the most impressive part was how intimate he became with his own solo – he let it become such a part of him that instead of engaging in the traditional call and response, he had a call and response with himself. The audience became too wrapped up in the solo to think that the performance could be ending, and much of the audience left Chapin with an intense thirst for more.

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