Oberlin Jazz Ensemble Showcases Talent for Students, Parents
An enthusiastic Parents Weekend crowd brought a good-natured atmosphere to the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble’s concert on Saturday night. This semester the band is filled with new players, many of whom are first-years, and all bring their own particular talents to the ensemble, making it their own collective creation.
Visiting Professor of Jazz Trumpet Marcus Belgrave has again taken over direction of the ensemble, with Jazz Department Chair Wendell Logan out on sick leave.
“Simone,” a composition by Frank Foster, the arranger for Duke Ellington’s orchestra, began with a solo from junior pianist Julian Chin. He laid back into his lines, feeding off some nice Afro rhythms in junior Jake Robinson’s drumming. First-year trombonist Corey Wilcox also stepped up to play an articulate, virtuosic solo full of slurs and rhythmic displacement.
After the hard-hitting shout chorus, first-year saxophonist David Wise came up to wail through a series of runs over an interpolated set of chords. He honked into the bottom range of his horn and screamed into the top — seemingly with no way out, banging on the ceiling. With a series of cadenzas at the end of the chart, Wise finished the business he started in his solo, bringing the tune to an ecstatic conclusion.
With Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” sophomore vocalist Nina Moffitt proved that she can sing with soul and facility, although she does not always have the raw power to belt above the band. Her ideas are bluesy, and her phrasing is free and loose, but it would be nice to hear her put more physical force behind her voice.
First-year pianist Ben Stepner tore into the opening solo of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance,” never seeming to run out of ideas. The arrangement itself sounded fat and majestic, aided, no doubt, by this year’s addition of a bass trombone (sophomore Christian Behrens) and a tuba (first-year Josiah Reibstine) in the brass section.
Saxophonist Wise appeared for another solo in which he played the ensemble parts at the microphone and intermittently answered himself with absurd harmonic adventures.
Drummer Robinson was also featured on “Passion Dance;” he began with deep, rhythmic sounds from his toms, finally building into a splash of cymbals before the ensemble reentered.
“Penthouse Dawn,” a lyrical ballad by Oliver Nelson, was an extended solo for first-year alto saxophonist Mike Taylor, who succeeded in interpreting the piece effectively and sensitively.
The first set closed with Frank Foster’s take-no-prisoners arrangement of the classic “Take the A Train.” Wise took another swinging solo, by this time revealing that he is more than comfortable playing on stage with this band and intended to deliver some great music in earnest that night.
On “A Train,” he stuck to the changes, playing simple, bluesy lines that locked up tightly with the rhythm section.
When the OJE returned to the stage, they really got something started with Pat Williams’ kicking R&B arrangement of “Come Rain or Come Shine” in 6/8 time, which really brought out the soulful, passionate aspects of the song. The band invoked the spirit of Ray Charles with their performance, perhaps inspired by the direction of Belgrave, who is a former member of the Ray Charles Orchestra.
Moffitt made the admirable choice of letting the chart play itself, singing easily and heartily. She went on to explore the intricacies of “Deedle’s Blues,” although she found herself a little lost in the band’s volume as it began to kick toward the end.
A good arrangement of Ray Brown’s tune “Neverbird” featured first-years Seth Wimberly on saxophone and Ben Litwin on trumpet. Both found lines and swung when pushed to do so. A highlight of this tune was a trombone section solo at the end of the piece in which the whole band cut out and the five low brass players were left to play alone in beefy exultation.
On “Think on Me,” junior trombonist Matt Davis played a sweet solo with a beautiful sound; he really got into the vibe of the tune. Junior trumpeter Miller Tinkerhess followed him, interpreting with similar sensitivity and attentive listening. Then, Reibstine carried his tuba up to the microphone for a solo, working out trumpet-like lines displaced several octaves on his instrument. To anyone who might wonder: yes, a tuba can swing.
The OJE finished out the night with Charles Mingus’s earthy, quick-paced blues “Boogie Stop Shuffle.” During first-year baritone saxophonist Danny Kamins’ solo, Belgrave seated himself at the conga drums and began playing off the groove junior Stefan Amidon laid down on the drums, making eye contact with the rhythm section and laughing. One of the highlights of the solos was sophomore alto saxophonist Noah Weiss, who is normally a tenor player; the sound of his tenor-esque lines coming out of the alto was piercing and powerful.
The crowd greeted the OJE’s performance warmly, rising to their feet and shouting. While the concert was not perfect, it did satisfy a large audience’s appetite for a good time.