Williams Jazz Ensemble ain’t got nothin’ but soul

“If the band can beat up the audience, you know it’s a bad sign.” This saying sadly held true at the Williams Jazz Ensemble performance in Chapin Hall on Friday night. However, the sparse attendance didn’t stop the big band from performing several exciting numbers, including excellent new arrangements from Charlie Dougherty ’09 and Ben Peskoe ’10. The show also featured the Zambezi Marimba Band, which provided a somewhat ambiguous ending to an otherwise solid performance.

The set started off with bassist Dougherty’s arrangement of “Blue Train,” originally performed and written by tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. The arrangement most prominently featured a chromatic ascension at the high-point of the piece with full voicings from the entire band, followed by a return to the original key. Peskoe on guitar opened the night with a nice solo and beautiful tone.

The band followed Peskoe’s solo with “I’m Walkin’,” an R&B cross-over hit with distinct traces of the blues roots. Aspen Jordan ’11 was featured on vocals for this number and navigated the jazz arrangement while simultaneously maintaining a strong sense of the piece’s R&B elements. Jordan has tremendous talent, both in rich vocal tone and in her easy control over notes.

Trumpeter Geoff Rodriguez ’11 took an appropriately relaxed solo that was well suited for the song’s bluesy feel, and he was followed by Dan Golub ’08 on piano. Golub’s vocals did justice to the size of the instrument he played, creating a large sound, exemplified by thick voicings and octaves.

The next piece also showcased a vocalist. “Never Will I Marry,” sung by Elin Hardenberg, fit in vocal style and provided an opportunity to show off the agility of the band’s horn section with a string of tricky passages. Hardenberg’s lovely straight tone surprisingly emerged out of her modest stage presence.

“Evidence,” a tune originally written by the famously idiosyncratic composer/performer Thelonious Monk, was adapted and arranged for the ensemble by Peskoe. The tune opened with the characteristically sparse and rhythm-focused melody held just in the horn section. The piece then developed into a fuller sound as the trumpets came in with a counter-melody and were joined by the rhythm section. The arrangement was particularly effective in so far as Peskoe successfully preserved the offbeat feeling of the piece while supplementing the sound with his own creative ideas.

In the next few tunes, we finally got to hear trumpeter Brian Bistolfo ’09. Bistolfo sounded best in “Walkin’ and Swingin’,” where he handled the tricky trumpet solo section with understated confidence. He was also strong in “Jazz Is” during which Jordan made another appearance and confidently dug into the emotion behind the words, “Jazz ain’t nothin’ but soul.”

The performance reached its peak when the band performed an arrangement of the original pop song by The Spinners entitled “I’m Coming Home.” Kenny Flax ’09 laid down a strong back-beat in the style of the New Orleans street rhythm as Gordon Crabtree ’08 blew an exciting tenor solo and Mac Walton ’08 took a solo that was understated yet gratifying. The band as a whole did a good job of keeping the dynamics of the possibly frenetic piece under control. The moments of intensity were effectively offset by corresponding moments of lower volume.

Following the students’ performance the Zambezi Marimba Band took the stage. Unfortunately, the Band’s musical merits were not proportional to the amount of the stage-space it occupied. The first of the two pieces they performed was an adaptation of the dance music that comes originally from the celebration following Zambian girls’ initiation ceremonies entitled “Siemboka.” The sound of the marimba is intrinsically pleasing, utilizing instruments starting in the high registers and extending down to those with an extremely low and resonant sound. This sound coupled with the pleasing repetitive tonal patterns rendered the tune a crowd-pleaser.

The fact that the final number lacked almost all coherence should not be attributed to the musicians in either group nor to the arrangement itself, but rather to a well-intentioned (and ill-fated) artistic venture on the part of the directors of the two groups. The piece was an adaptation of Monk’s “Epistrophy” with contributions from both bands simultaneously, and while there was probably enough sound to fill Chapin Hall several times over, the beauty was spread a little thin.

Director Andy Jaffe struggled to keep rhythmic order while the contrasting sounds of the two bands pulled in opposite directions. Overall, this rendition was an unfittingly disorganized finale to an overwhelmingly tight and polished evening’s performance.