Jazz Ensemble features guest Lewis Porter

Last Friday, the Williams Jazz Ensemble, led by Andy Jaffe, presented a concert of pieces for both combos and big band. The first half of the program featured the compositions of Lewis Porter, who worked with the musicians personally and performed with them on two of the numbers. Comprising the first group were the students of MUS 213, Matt Swan ’03 and Dave Thome ’05 on bass; Matt Stankiewicz ’04 on vibraphone and drums; Daniel Krass ’05 on piano and vibraphone; Emily Tiller ’03 on piano and Eric Schoenfeld ’03 and alum Andy Kelly ’80 on guitar.

They opened with “Lester Young Samba,” a tribute to the well-known tenor saxophonist of the 1930s and ’40s. The song was both upbeat and relaxed, a good opener for the program. They followed with “Three Blues,” which, as its title suggests, revolved around three different blues themes that all came together at the end. The driving rhythmic undercurrent and angular melodies gave the song an energetic drive, enhanced by good solos in the saxophone, vibes and bass.

The next group to perform included Drees Griffin ’06 on alto and soprano saxophone; Dave Cohen ’05 on tenor saxophone and clarinet; Dave Thome ’05 on bass; Reid Phillips ’05 on drums; Matt O’Malley ’05 on guitar and Paul Vichyanond ’05 on piano. They started with “Second Voyage,” which Porter described as being “in a kind of slow, Latin 6/8 – it’s about new beginnings, ‘second voyages,’ in life.” The pulsing rhythms in the piano provided an excellent backdrop for the group’s warm, polished sound. Griffin’s solo on soprano sax was striking and energetic, exuding the vitality of the song. The group’s next number was “Again and Again,” which was cooler and more relaxed, with the group dying away at the end for a soft ending on the piano.

The last combo to perform was made up entirely of seniors: Dave Goodman on guitar; Lucas Goodbody on drums; Swan on bass; Matt Ellis ’03 on tenor saxophone and Liliana Goldman on flute. They were joined on piano by Lewis Porter himself. They performed what were perhaps the two most adventurous compositions of the evening, “Olivier” and “Irish Mantra.” “Olivier” was based on the music of the 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen and centered around a very modern-sounding, atonal theme in the piano. The song also featured many different effects on the piano and wide variations in energy level and dynamic. The second number, “Irish Mantra,” combined elements of both Irish and Indian traditional music. The Irish character of the main theme was particularly evident in the sounds of the flute and snare drum and the drone accompaniment in the piano and bass. Porter’s piano solo was particularly striking, as he experimented with different alterations of the main theme. Porter really took control of the group, dictating the return of the main theme and shaping the lengths of the solos.

The second half of the program featured the Williams Jazz Ensemble in full force, performing the big band compositions of Mary Lou Williams and Duke Ellington. Their first number was Williams’s “Scratchin’ in the Gravel,” which had a very classic swing sound much different from the more avant-garde compositions of Porter. There were some great solos from Roger LaRocca ’05 on trumpet, Cohen on tenor saxophone and Goldman on piano that complemented the big, brassy sound from the rest of the band.

The band performed other songs by Williams as well, including “Gravel/Truth” and “Aries,” before performing her “Blue Skies,” which served as a segue into the works of Ellington, as it was written by Williams for Ellington’s band. The song was a high-energy romp featuring some wild trumpet solos from Corie McDermott ’04 and Isaac Foster ’05.

The first Ellington number was “Jump for Joy,” from his once-controversial show of the same name about the demise of Jim Crow. The song lived up to its name in character, featuring spirited vocals from Abigail Nessen ’05. The Ensemble finished the evening with Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” a dramatic closer that featured impressive tutti sections and solos from Ellis, Cohen, Justin Vitello on baritone sax (from Bennington College) and Jocelyn Gardner ’05 on trumpet. Overall, it was an evening that explored the many different possibilities of jazz, one of the most complex and versatile genres of music.