Jazz soloists refresh big band

Williams Jazz Ensemble took on the challenge last Saturday of reviving “big band” music, a now-dying tradition. Director Andy Jaffy conducted the Jazz Ensemble in Chapin Hall, which was accompanied by guest saxophonist Don Braden. Braden, a Harvard graduate who now runs the well-known Litchfield Jazz Camp, once shared the stage with the foremost jazz musicians, including Wynton Marsalis, Betty Carter and Freddie Hubbard. A tension hovered around the ensemeble members in the form of nervous laughter; all were eager yet on edge from the high bar set by Braden’s impressive reputation as a contemporary musician.

The performance was divided into three sets performed by different instrumental groupings: the big band, a small student ensemble called “Turnip Cake” and the big band with the addition of Braden. After the sounds of tuning and an improvised Charlie Brown theme song faded away, the performance opened with an Ellis Marsalis piece titled “Swingin’ at the Haven.” Featuring a classic New Orleans street beat, the tune began with a crisp saxophone and trumpet duet that cut through the muddy resonance of Chapin. Charlie Sellars ’13 and Ryan Pavano ’13, on the drum set and trombone, respectively, stayed true to the New Orleans roots with their impressive solos.

The second piece of the set was an original composition by the band’s pianist Rob Pasternak ’11. Saturated with massive chord hits and fresh blues tones, Pasternak’s “Blues for Baltimore” was one of the most dynamic pieces of the evening. Andy Quinn ’13 seized the audience’s attenion, exuding a commanding presence with his saxophone solo.

Chaz Lee ’12 then took the stage as a pseudo-Sinatra figure for the band’s rendition of “I’ve Got the World on A String” by Harold Arlen. Starting slow and weighty, the piece broke into a bright cut time as Lee’s rich vocals successfully brought the audience back to the 1930s. The set ended with a Charles Mingus composition called “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” which resembled a demented minor blues. Greg McElroy ’12 took an inspiring baritone saxophone solo, displaying deftness for the blues form.

At this point the small ensemble Turnip Cake, precariously named by the group’s drummer Joe Mastracchio ’10, took the stage with Braden. As the musicians cycled through the initial round of solos on Braden’s own composition titled “Vail Jumpers,” their hesitant playing revealed a common nervousness. However, once Braden himself took the reins and wailed a solo on his golden tenor sax, a wave of calmness and confidence visibly passed through the players as all focused on the music.

The next song Turnip Cake played, “Close Your Eyes” by Berniece Petkere, featured the voice of Aspen Jordan ’11. Braden and guitarist Danny Schwartz ’13 shared solos on this tune, but Jordan certainly stole the show. Braden stood awestruck, along with the rest of the audience, by Jordan’s intoxicating voice; as she belted “close your eyes” at the climax, the musicians once again played with renewed inspiration from her powerful singing.

The final number for the Turnip Cake ensemble was a Clifford Brown tune titled “Daahoud.” The musicians pushed the limits of their skills as Quinn took on a saxophone solo, one of the riskiest and most difficult performances that night. Pasternak followed suit in a solo that resembled professional work, impressing Braden enough that he reflected a few of Pasternak’s improvised lines in his own playing.

Then the big band returned to the stage with Braden for the final set of the night. They began with Braden’s “The Landing Zone,” a composition from the early 1990s. Though it was the band’s least memorable tune, the arrangement ended with a forceful baroque-esque contrapuntal chord overload – a signature of Braden’s arrangements. The second tune, Braden’s arrangement of “Winelight” by William Eaton, was a “funk-i-fied” version of a classic Grover Washington chart. Braden and Paisley Kang ’12 on guitar found solace in the funk roots and performed smooth solos over the number.

The band then dived into Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” A lovely standard, this was the only slow instrumental composition of the night. Braden took hold of the melodically stirring phrases, which in turn propelled the band into a cut time section that wrenched the audience’s heart. Just at the music’s climax, the band faded away and left Braden to take a solo cadenza. Displaying outstanding musicianship, Braden masterfully balanced brute technical skill with a gentle and reflective melody. This moment was breathtaking for all those listening.

The concert ended with Braden’s “The Boiling Point,” an upbeat and funky composition from his CD Fire Within. Braden continued to find ways to dazzle the audience with his seemingly endless pool of creativity. With a rising savage groove from the piano, drums and bass, the audience was forced to ask where “the boiling point” would fall. As the performance rocked into its explosive ending, the audience exploded into appreciative applause.