Jazz Ensemble dazzles audiences

The Williams Jazz Ensemble skillfully navigated the rapid and virtuosic sounds of the Blue Note Era. Photo courtesy of The Williams Record.
The Williams Jazz Ensemble skillfully navigated the rapid and virtuosic sounds of the Blue Note Era. Photo courtesy of The Williams Record.

Last Friday night in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, the Williams Jazz Ensemble, a group of 21 musicians including director Kris Allen, presented “The Blue Note Era,” a survey into an era of jazz music during the mid-20th century.

Prior to the performance, Kris Allen, also an artist-in-residence and lecturer in music at the College, explained what exactly characterizes the Blue Note Era. The period spans from approximately 1955 to 1965, but “it’s really more about a record label,” Blue Note Records, a jazz label founded in 1939. Blue Note Records set the standards for the jazz industry in many ways; it achieved a cleaner sound by paying their musicians for rehearsal time and a jazzier sound made possible by the engineering work of Rudy Van Gelder. In addition, Blue Note Records worked with graphic designer Reid Miles, whose bold and modern album covers provided an iconic visual element in conjunction with the music.

The sound of the Blue Note Era is rapid and virtuosic — almost all members of the ensemble performed a solo at one point. During this period, the complexity of bebop was inflected by elements of blues and gospel. In an illustrative opening piece, the Jazz Ensemble performed “Minor League,” a punchy swing chart arranged by Duke Pearson, first appearing in Grant Green’s Solid. “Minor League” is an impatient, up-tempo track that begins at a rapid speed maintained throughout the rest of the piece by a continuous rhythm on the drums. In fact, “Minor League” seemed almost too big to contain within Brooks-Rogers. Solo followed after solo, each one precipitating a shower of applause and cheers. The piece closed with a cacophonous final note that tapered off in a cymbal roll.

Other works within the program were less vigorous. In Theodora, by Billy Taylor and arranged by Johnny Pate, the guitar playing by Jeff Pearson ’20 took a central role. Named after Taylor’s wife, Theodora stands out from the rest of the program because of its very well defined center of gravity; the guitar has the melody for the entire duration of the piece, with the rest of the instruments serving as accompaniment. Instead of a fast and hard tempo, Theodora gently rolls along with an affectionate warmness in the brass.

Cedar Walton’s composition, Mozaic, arranged by Don Sickler, follows after. Originally performed by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, who Allen called a “poster band” of the Blue Note Era, Mozaic begins with a fake-out: a melodic intro that quickly dissolves and gives way to percussive rhythmic intensity. The strong percussion then diffuses a bit to allow for some complex cross rhythms, but then returns to its original intensity at the finish.

To conclude, the ensemble performed two works composed by Kenny Dorham. The first, “La Mesha,” from Joe Henderson’s Page One, languidly unfurls like smoke. The piano provides a soft foreground for the sax, which initially has the voice. Out of all the pieces on the program, La Mesha is the most constant in tempo and also the shortest. The sound lazily hangs in the air for a while, as if slumbering. In the last quarter, the piece gathers more harmonic complexity and energy until ultimately shuddering to a close. The final performance, “Minor’s Holiday,” found on Don Sickler’s AfroCuban, has a more lively sense of motion to it, starting with a syncopated motif. Just like “Minor League,” it is another technically challenging piece, featuring a dazzling trumpet solo, followed by ones on the piano trombone, saxophone and drums. The motif from the beginning returns at the end, as all of the instruments ascend the register together for the final note in a loud, cathartic unison.