Jazz Ensemble finale honors Duke Ellington

Students and community members alike packed Chapin Hall on Friday night for the Williams Jazz Ensemble’s end-of-year concert. In addition to performing a large selection of songs by Duke Ellington as a tribute to the well-known jazz great, the Jazz Ensemble also welcomed to the stage guest performer and acclaimed trumpeter Sean Jones and his band the Sean Jones Group to perform a series of songs, including a composition of Jones’ own. The performance was marked by the unflagging enthusiasm of both the audience and the performers, whose love of jazz music was evident from start to finish.

The ensemble opened the concert with a lively piece entitled “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The choice was consistent with the concert’s focus on Ellington: This piece was the theme song of the Ellington band for many years (although it was not written by Ellington himself). As the piece kicked off, the pianist played a smooth, unrushed melody which was soon overtaken by the brass and winds, the song rising to a climax of overwhelming sound during a featured trumpet solo before fading out quietly at the end of the piece.

The volume and genuine enthusiasm with which this first piece was played proved to be characteristic of the entire performance – the ensemble moved on to play a number of buoyant, brassy pieces such as “In a Mellotone” and “Upper Manhattan Medical Groups,” which had members of the audience bobbing their heads and tapping their feet in their seats. The crowd responded excitedly to each student solo, and guest appearances on “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” by Jones and Brian Hogans, member of the Sean Jones Group, on saxophone were greeted with wild applause. Also welcomed to the stage was vocalist Michelle Rodriguez ’12, who captivated the audience in songs such as “Flying Home” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” with her strong, smoky tones.

As yet another reminder that this school year is coming swiftly to a close, Andy Jaffe, Clay artist in residence, director of jazz activities and senior lecturer in music, took a couple minutes before performing the last song of the first half of the concert to give a warm and personal farewell to each of the departing seniors: vocalist Rodriguez, Aaron Freedman ’12 on tenor sax, Greg McElroy ’12 on baritone sax and Brad Polsky ’12, who plays alto sax and clarinet and is a jazz program teaching assistant. In the Jazz Ensemble’s final, rousing song, Rodriguez was joined by singers Su-Young Kim ’14 and Caroline Sinico ’14 for a three-voice remake of Ellington’s well-known hit “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing.” The short, vivacious piece brought some members of the audience out of their seats for a standing ovation.

After a brief intermission, the Sean Jones Group, including Hogans, George Burton on piano, Luques Curtis on the bass and Justin Faulkner on the drums, took to the stage for the first time that night to play a few pieces of their own. Without pausing to introduce the song, the group leaped right into the action, the drums, bass and piano creating a wall of explosive, cacophonous sound that would eventually be clarified (but not at all diminished) by the entrance of the trumpet and saxophone with a bright, ringing melody.

Known for communicating “directly and movingly” through music, Jones’s own claim that “I like to play from the heart and not the head” perfectly illustrated the group’s style. While their rhythms and melodies were complicated and each member of the band played what appeared to be a countless number of difficult passages throughout the concert, what was so engaging about their sound was not the prowess with which they played each song but the obvious passion and commitment that they put into their performance. Whether playing a slow, bluesy melody or an explosive song with drum beats that shook the seats of the auditorium, the group members were engaged and active, giving their all to the audience.

Perhaps it was this passion that drove the audience members out of their seats at the end of the concert, giving a standing ovation and shouting “Encore!” to the Sean Jones Group for almost three minutes before Jones and Hogans (this time on piano) gracefully returned to the stage for a final piece. Much slower and quieter than the others, the soaring trumpet melody and quiet piano accompaniment provided the audience with a soothing ending to an energizing concert.