OJE keeps swinging under baton of Marcus Belgrave
Some fresh players and a different conductor have done nothing to slow the swinging machine known as the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble. The OJE’s first concert of the academic year was blessed with acting director Marcus Belgrave’s presence while regular conductor and jazz department chair, Wendell Logan, is on leave this semester.
Belgrave opened the concert by acknowledging Logan’s presence in the audience, recognizing him as “the man who has, for over 20 years, directed this program in Afro-Centric music, the African-American classical music we know as jazz.”
A slew of new players have added a new dimension to the OJE’s depth as a group; it is obvious that everyone in this band can stand up and blow.
The first set opened with an impressive rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come.” As suggested by its title, Gillespie’s piece is a little more progressive than the average big band chart, and the ensemble performed it with a lot of cohesion and a good deal of attitude.
In the past, the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble has encountered difficulties unifying the highly individual musicians who compose it, but from the beginning of its first set on Saturday night, this particular collection of individuals demonstrated that they had something to say.
Another highlight was a version of “Tip Toe,” a rhythm tune by Thad Jones, which began with a very tasty trumpet solo by sophomore Miller Tinkerhess. Tinkerhess started simply with some sweet melodic lines, and eventually progressed into his upper register, which came out clearly and effortlessly.
A well-done trombone section feature showcased the talents of junior Rachel Levin, seniors Allie Bosso and Naomi Siegel and first-year Matt Davis.
“Tip Toe” was designed for a hard- swinging band, and the OJE truly did the chart justice when sophomore Jonathan Parker played his very soulful alto sax solo while the ensemble’s backgrounds climaxed behind him.
The final tune of the first set was the classic “Milestones,” which the OJE played at the comfortable speed of a runaway train. An old staple of this band’s repertoire, “Milestones” swung even harder than “Tip Toe,” with a middle section that was cracked wide open, featuring a long parade of soloists who took the music in a variety of different directions.
Among the most compelling and lyrical of soloists was sophomore Will Cleary on alto sax, although the end of his improvisation was unfortunately swallowed by the band’s forceful backgrounds. Senior pianist Eben Lichtman played a sparkling solo as well. Junior trumpeter Theodore Croker brought the soloist parade to a close, invoking the spirit of Miles Davis, and then departing into his own inventions.
The ensemble has flourished under Belgrave’s direction, and on Saturday he was very active as a conductor, giving expressive cues and infusing the rhythm section with energy. His remarks onstage, however, revealed some unfamiliarity with the band’s members.
After trying unsuccessfully to introduce individuals, Belgrave said in his smiling, gravelly voice, “I don’t know many of the names up here, but I assure you they are all dynamite folks,” at which the band and audience laughed graciously.
The energy of the second set was more relaxed and slightly darker in timbre as the concert went on. Belgrave actually pulled out his own trumpet at several points to play with the students, or to take a solo.
Belgrave said with a grin that, because of his interest in “Number III,” by Lawrence Williams, “I might have to play a little on this one, too.”
The ensemble’s performance of the tune was respectable, but made especially notable due to Belgrave’s brilliant, highly individual trumpeting sounding like Louis Armstrong having a revelation about the merits of bebop. Toward the end of the piece, the rhythm section dropped out, leaving junior Russell Manning alone to perform an excellent, sonorous bass solo. The ensemble’s next tune was Wendell Logan’s funky arrangement of “Tin Tin Deo,” originally a Dizzy Gillespie composition. The piece began with a bass line, doubled inhe piano, which Logan would probably call “greazy.” The OJE proceeded to deliver the funk in heaping portions, culminating with another solo from Croker.
The OJE closed with Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology,” which
presented another procession of soloists to the microphone, including a notable
double solo between Croker and Parker. After Ricardo Lagomasino took his turn on
the drums, the ensemble returned with the melody. Lagomasino continued his solo
until the ensemble finally came back with one more statement of the melody to
end the night.