The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts December 8, 2006

OJE Does Right By New, Old Standards

Sometimes old tunes are still around because they lend themselves to an infinite number of different improvisations. In many cases, that’s what makes a standard. Last Saturday night, the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble played a mix of old standbys and hard-swinging new arrangements at Finney Chapel.

Thad Jones’ by-now-standard “Mean What You Say” opened the night. A tasteful solo from junior trumpeter Miller Tinkerhess and a broadly soulful one from first-year tenor saxophonist David Wise spoke to the potential of jazz to be recreated anew in each performance, regardless of the familiarity of the composition.

On “Simone,” another well-known piece, written by Frank Foster, senior trumpeter Truan Savage stepped up to take an impressive solo, followed soon after by first-year alto saxophonist Mike Taylor, whose imaginative risk-taking was extremely refreshing.

Then came “Air Mail Special,” the night’s first departure from the ordinary. Director Marcus Belgrave had announced earlier that the band would be featuring music from the ’20s and ’30s, and with “Air Mail” they certainly delivered. Lionel Hampton’s intense, screaming arrangement begged for dancing – or infectious physical motion of some kind. The piece culminated in a trumpet battle of trading fours.

Two pieces featuring sophomore vocalist Nina Moffitt followed, first the tender ballad “A Child is Born” — an old standard — and then an unconventional arrangement of the traditional “Greensleeves,” which started with a beautiful brass chorale and transitioned into a funky kind of swing with Moffitt bluesily improvising around the familiar melody.

Another one from Lionel Hampton’s book, “Flying Home,” was full of upbeat melodic statements that nailed the beat right in the pocket to close out the first set. A nice call and response between the guitar and one of the trumpets launched the tune into its danceable conclusion.

The second set opened by bringing Moffitt back to the stage to perform Jimmy Heath’s arrangement of “I’m Glad There Is You.” The arrangement itself is inventive and open-minded in the way it treats the piece’s harmony and the shape of the melodic line, but the way it fit Moffitt’s voice was just beautiful. She seemed at ease and able to lay back into the tune, freely moving throughout her range and interacting seamlessly with saxophonist Wise.

The middle of the second set was filled out by the OJE’s annual performance of Duke Ellington’s version of The Nutcracker Suite. One of the challenges to playing this piece is, especially in the improvised sections, to strike a balance between the particular, historical style of the players in Ellington’s orchestra and the possibilities of new interpretation when the piece is played today.

In years past, students have done a marvelous job at mimicking the tone of the original recordings when they performed Ellington’s Nutcracker. But this year, each soloist brought his or her own style to the piece without making it seem jarring or out of context. An unusual addition was the use of an oboe rather than a piccolo for the final movement, “Arabesque Cookie,” a change which greatly contributed to the eastern flavor of the piece.

The OJE then tore into McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance,” beginning with a gorgeous, dissonant solo from first-year pianist Ben Stepner, full of furious repetition and relentless, swinging lines in octaves. Saxophonist Taylor followed, picking up where Stepner left off, and took the piece in a different direction before the band roared in to finish the night off in style.


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