Ensemble stirs movie magic

The Williams Jazz Ensemble staked out a broad range of musical territory in its concert in Chapin Hall on Thursday. The program showcased Cinematic Suite, a senior thesis composition by Rob Pasternak ’11. In addition, the ensemble performed original arrangements of pieces spanning the cocktail jazz of Burt Bacharach and the adventurous, rock-influenced jazz of the band Kneebody. Another piece, A Brief History of Acceleration, by Douglas Boyce ’92, was postponed for the Ensemble’s May concert.
After striding onstage to energetic applause, the Ensemble quickly launched into Burt Bacharach’s Wives and Lovers. Arranged by bassist Jon Morgenstern ’11, the opening number featured Five O’Clock Shadow, a smaller group consisting of the rhythm section, saxophones, Pasternak on piano and Geoff Rodriguez ’11 on trumpet. Playing the role of a small, tight combo, Five O’Clock Shadow proved an ideal match for Morgenstern’s arrangement, which featured dense harmonies and a rapid succession of solos. With its complex piano chords, loud dynamics and brisk tempo, the piece opened the evening on a strident note. The energy of the group was palpable, not least in the cacophonous volume: Adjustments to sound levels mid-song brought the soloists to the forefront and made for a better balance. Pasternak, the Ensemble’s main pianist, quickly made his mark, combining syncopated chord jabs with dexterous runs in the top of the keyboard. The piece also featured solos by Rodriguez, Danny Schwartz ’13 on guitar and Chris Picardo ’13 on tenor sax.
The Ensemble changed tact with its next number, an alternate arrangement of Wives and Lovers by Valerie Tichacek. This featured the entire group as well as singer Aspen Jordan ’11. While the first arrangement showcased the skill and experimentation of the musicians, the second brought the melody to the fore while highlighting the group’s restraint. Conducted by director Andy Jaffe, the Ensemble displayed admirable control, laying back during the verses and surging forward in between Jordan’s vocal passages. For her part, Jordan brought lilting vocals and a confident stage presence that meshed well with the Ensemble. Andy Quinn ’13 on soprano sax and Brad Polsky ’12 on alto sax contributed solos; the song also featured Taylor Halperin ’14 at the piano.
Following the varying interpretations of Wives and Lovers, Kneebody’s eccentrically titled Dr. Beauchef, Penguin Dentist offered another view of the group’s versatility. Morgenstern’s arrangement recast the ensemble as a hard rock group: Powered by the rhythm and wind sections, the group lent the song’s swaggering groove a heavy sound that called Led Zeppelin to mind. However, the jazz spirit of the Ensemble shone through at several interludes, in which the trumpets played a series of complex harmonies. Pasternak and Schwartz took solos.
This left the evening’s centerpiece: Cinematic Suite. As Pasternak explained the logic of the five-movement piece, “It’s supposed to represent the emotional arc you see in an epic film.” The multi-sectioned first movement, titled “Opening Credits,” reflected this expansive vision, featuring an abundance of time and key changes as well as mood shifts. The brisk opening section matched the movement’s title by evoking a visual montage. After some group harmonizing, the Ensemble cut out for a piano solo by Pasternak that descended into the lower octaves of the keyboard and conveyed a sense of rising drama. The Ensemble returned for another up-tempo section that echoed the striding, busy feel of the opening before closing the first movement with another piano solo.
Pasternak then moved to the conductor’s stand and Halperin took over on piano for the second movement, “Evil Empire/Hello Hero.” Building from a slow, lurching rhythm, the Ensemble created a menacing drone that recalled Bernard Hermann’s score for Taxi Driver, aptly capturing an aura of danger. The third movement, “Our Journey,” opened with a series of sustained chords played by the entire group. Evoking a sunrise, it was an appropriate beginning for the protagonist’s journey. With Pasternak back on piano, the movement jumped from one style to another, even delving into a funk groove midway through.
The fourth movement, “Final Fight,” staged the climax of the suite as a duel between the saxophones and trumpets, punctuated by bursts from the full group. In “Everlasting Peace,” the fifth movement, the band conveyed the hero’s relief by settling into a lightly swinging rhythm and gliding through long chords. Rather than sounding a celebratory “epic” note, this final section called to mind a film noir with its subdued atmosphere and bleating, muted trumpets. As the suite wound down to its close, the Ensemble dropped out, leaving Pasternak to close the piece by repeating the slow rhythm from the second movement. While this made for a more ambiguous ending than one might have expected, it did justice to the daring and sophistication of Pasternak’s composition and of the whole performance.