Oberlin Jazz Ensemble Celebrates Generous Gift
It was a festive night for the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble last Saturday evening in Finney Chapel as the jazz department celebrated the donation of funds for the building of a new jazz studies facility, for which a grave need has existed for many years on campus.
Marcus Belgrave, who has been directing the OJE this semester, opened the concert by thanking the donors, Stewart and Donna Kohl, for their overwhelming gift of five million dollars. The donors were in attendance at the OJE’s final concert of the semester, and Belgrave promised, “We will live up to their expectations.”
The concert started off in a laid-back style with Gil Evans’s arrangement of “Maids of Cadiz,” which is a very interesting piece for its dissonant brass clusters and expressive orchestration. The trombone section alternated, at intervals, between earthy growls and resonant, singing passages. This tune featured an extended solo from a trumpeter, junior Theodore Croker, who appreciated the character of the piece and played very sensitively throughout.
The introduction to Jimmy Heath’s “Big P” was cracked wide open, beginning with a trumpet solo from Belgrave himself, which established a deep groove for the rest of the tune. Fifth-year pianist Kevin McHugh followed Belgrave with a very thoughtful smattering of improvisation.
The laid-back vibe continued as more soloists came forward to make their contributions. Lately, the OJE has been playing much more easily on stage together, perhaps because a recent road trip to Detroit cemented some of the bonds offstage among the members.
“Big P” ended with a standout solo from senior Allie Bosso in which most of the rhythm section completely dropped out, leaving only trombone and bass playing in counterpoint with each other. Bosso’s solo represented a deft combination of technical passages and soulful melodic phrases. The ensemble closed out the tune by rushing a little through the shout chorus, although this did not do much to diminish the piece’s effect. Belgrave demonstrated his improved familiarity with the band by introducing the long parade of soloists by name.
The OJE continued with Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan,” a tune made popular by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The tune is written for a saxophone soloist, which meant that Saturday night’s audience had the distinct pleasure of hearing lead alto saxophonist, sophomore Will Cleary, play a ballad. Cleary’s personal sound haunted the hall with beautiful lyricism, reaching into its corners and back walls, especially in the piece’s stop time sections.
“Once Around,” a screaming, intensely rhythmic composition by Thad Jones, was the last tune of the first set. Its solo section included an especially compelling guitar solo from junior Dave Burgreen, in which he expanded the piece’s harmonic ideas, and conversed rhythmically with sophomore drummer Alex Ritz.
Junior trombonist Rachel Levin followed with an interesting solo that began simply, and subtly developed that single motive throughout the rest of the improvisation. Croker returned for another solo; this time around, it was outlandish and virtuosic.
The band backed him up with some very hip backgrounds, until Ritz transitioned naturally into a funk section which acted as the shout chorus. The drummer then took the band out and traded hits with them for a powerful ending.
Before the band’s second set, Conservatory Dean David Stull appeared on stage. He began by recognizing the work of Professor Wendell Logan, chair of the jazz studies department, and went on to formally thank the donors of the funds for the new jazz facility. He asked the Kohls, who were sitting in the second row of the chapel, to stand and be recognized, which they did. The assembled audience then stood with them and applauded enthusiastically for several minutes.
Stull went on to explain the story behind the Kohls’ donation. While the Kohls are not musicians, they are music patrons. Their friends, Mel Litoff and Phyllis Weibart, used to own the legendary Greenwich Village jazz club Sweet Basil (which has now become Sweet Rhythm under new management.) Phyllis died in 2002 of brain cancer, and the new jazz building will be named for her. As Stull said, “Unlike most club owners, [they] were phenomenal human beings.”
The celebration continued in the OJE’s second set: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s re-interpretation of The Nutcracker Suite, the Christmas favorite by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Belgrave returned to the stage sporting a Santa hat and grinning ear to ear. The suite, composed of nine movements that approximate some of the exotic dances of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, combines the Russian’s familiar composition with a blues aesthetic. Some have dubbed it the “Harlem Nutcracker.”
The suite is difficult to perform, mainly because of the high level of technical proficiency demanded by the written and improvised solos throughout the individual horn parts. Duke Ellington wrote parts for the individual players in his band, so the arrangement is very strongly based on this conception of a group of strong individuals playing together. The piece also requires a high level of sectional cohesion and cross-orchestral listening.
The OJE’s performance of the suite was very solid. The brass sections sounded especially strong and united on Saturday night. The opening Overture, which Ellington popularized, found the trombone section in fine form.
The solo parts were played with conviction and stylistic integrity. A highlight was the earnest, limitless wailing of first-year tenor saxophonist Dylan Lewis on the cadenzas of The Peanut Brittle Brigade, which energized the entire ensemble.
In Arabesque Cookie, a mysterious, funky, minor venture, Cleary and Croker took a joint solo that turned into a conversation between the two talented players. The conversation was about jazz and the possibilities of improvisation. Croker employed a deeply expressive, blues-tinged tension combined with avant-garde-esque squawks.
Cleary began by strategically inserting melodic licks between Croker’s screaming blues statements, and gradually progressed into harmonically innovative runs and other inventions. Over time, the two exchanged roles; Cleary started to incorporate more blues licks, to squawk and to yell, while Croker began to experiment harmonically.
After the the last tune, the conductor opened his arms and said, “My
name is Marcus Belgrave, and we love you madly.”