Jazz Ensemble pays respects to ‘Fathead’ Newman in brassy style

The Williams Jazz Ensemble performed its “pre-spring” concert, a Salute to David “Fathead” Newman, last Friday in Chapin Hall. The program paid tribute to Newman, who was scheduled to come as a guest performer but passed away on Jan. 20. Newman, an excellent saxophone player and a long-time member of Ray Charles’ band, has over 38 albums recorded under his name. In his place, saxophonist and flautist Lew Tabackin performed as the guest artist. Tabackin is most famous for his contributions to the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, which he co-founded and played in as head soloist.

A packed Chapin Hall was eager for the music as the ensemble began to gather onstage. Erik Lawrence, the program director, made a few introductory remarks and then signaled the downbeat for the first of nine jazz compositions, each manifesting diverse styles and influences.

The first number, an original composition by Charles Dougherty ’09, titled “Weekend at the CB,” expressed an upbeat tone to start off the show. The composition was strongly bop in nature and brought to mind the American big bands of the 1950s. Brian Bistolfo ’09 was the featured trumpet soloist, playing smooth flourishes and licks that, as a whole, contributed to a well-polished improvisation. Moreover, the entire band felt very well-balanced from the start, with the rhythm section, comprised of Rob Pasternak ’11 on piano, Paisley Kang ’12 on guitar, Dougherty on bass and Kenny Flax ’09 on drums, providing a solid foundation for the brass.

The second number, “Ault Park,” was also an original student composition, written by Rob Pasternak ’11. This piece featured a slow ballad introduction followed by a swing section that was complemented by Pasternak’s expressive piano solo.

Before the third composition, Erik Lawrence introduced guest soloist Tabackin, who walked on stage brandishing a tenor saxophone. After approaching the microphone, he proceeded to describe his personal connection to Newman. His father had previously played with Newman, as had Tabackin himself at a jazz festival when he was very young. After the introduction, Tabackin proceeded to play, unaccompanied by the ensemble. Based on both the audience’s and players’ reactions, Tabackin stupefied everyone with his virtuosic grace and the way in he seemed to speak through his music. He expressed himself with ease and appeared strongly composed while playing a succession of phrases. After establishing his musical presence on the stage, the rhythm section finally broke in, providing a nice swing with Tabackin’s style. After the rest of the ensemble began, Bistolfo strolled confidently to the front of the stage, where he also began a solo on the trumpet and played off Tabackin’s licks. Overall, their combination was thrilling and created a robust sound.

Another notable song featuring Tabackin was an untitled number slipped in before the seventh piece. After reminiscing on his first encounter with “Fathead,” Tabackin brandished a golden flute and began to play what he called a “zin” version of a John Coltrane song. This unaccompanied piece exhibited an eastern vibe and seemed improvisatory and spiritual in nature. Throughout the song, Tabackin seemed completely at one with the flute, speaking through it as if it were his actual voice.

In addition to the instrumental pieces, the ensemble performed two numbers featuring vocalists. Dalena Frost ’09 performed a stellar rendition of “Drown in My Own Tears” by Henry Glover. This sentimental jazz standard swung in a manner reminiscent of the tunes of old jazz dance halls as Frost belted out her lyrics with panache and energy.

Aspen Jordan ’11 graced the stage in a heartfelt performance of “Body and Soul,” written by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman. This piece, made famous by Ray Charles, had a rock, blues and soul feel, which separated it stylistically from the rest of the numbers in the set. Nonetheless, Jordan performed with a soulful tone and brought down the house with her wide range of dynamics. Charles himself would have definitely been impressed by both her vigorous style of singing and the confidence with which she carried herself about on stage.

By and large, the performance last Friday night was extremely well-received by the audience. The night culminated in the final piece, Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig of You.” The audience watched as Tabackin persuaded Lawrence to bring out his baritone saxophone for a last solo. This proved to be a wonderful ending to a night filled with the energetic and mellifluous sounds of swing, bop and Latin jazz.

Brad Polsky ’12, one of the ensemble’s alto saxophonists, said, “It was a great performance due to the many styles and influences present throughout the pieces.” On the experience of playing with Tabackin, Polsky said, “I was very impressed with his warm, classical jazz sound. It was inspiring to play with such an incredible artist.”