Jazz Ensemble Still Going Strong
Someone should have checked last-minute conductor Dennis Reynolds’s pockets for shamrocks: stepping in for Wendell Logan, Reynolds led the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble in a performance that displayed marked improvement over many of their previous ones. Whether or not Reynolds was aided by good luck, the band played with power and inspiration from start to finish, providing worthy St. Patty’s day entertainment.
The band started off hot with “Low Down,” a Thad Jones tune based on the chord structure of the standard “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” The arrangement was tight, exhibiting excellent balance throughout, while the trumpets and rhythm section slammed the song home.
With its strong melody and medium up-tempo swing, John Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird” worked well as the second number. A favorite of Woody Hermann’s big band, the tune draws on Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird” and the standard “Lover Man” for harmonic content. Although the band showed considerable power again, Reynolds had a tight enough rein on the group to give Conservatory junior and tenor saxophonist Elysia Strauss plenty of airspace for her solo.
The third tune, Charles Mingus’s “Moanin’” moved from a gritty minor blues swing to bursts of loud improvisatory chaos and back again, shows Mingus’ roots as a hard bop composer but also his love for third-stream free jazz. Although double-degree sophomore Josiah Reibstein’s tuba solo was the crowd pleaser of the number, it was Conservatory first-year Danny Kamins’ baritone sax solo that stood out musically. Kamins began simply and developed his themes in a very deliberate manner quite reminiscent of early Sonny Rollins.
While the band showed substantial strength and energy on the first three tunes, it was the ballad “Butter,” originally recorded by the Village Vanguard Big Band, that proved more difficult. The saxophone section blended nicely again, but was unfortunately undermined by intonation issues in the trumpet section, particularly at the softer dynamics. Nonetheless, the performance still managed to please, thanks in part to soulful and at times even tender solos by double-degree junior pianist Erika Oba and Conservatory first-year trombonist Corey Wilcox.
Always a crowd favorite, College sophomore and jazz singer Nina Moffitt was smooth as ever, showing added confidence in her bends and blue notes, really digging in on “Afro Blue” and “Touch of Your Love.” Playing Logan’s own arrangement, the band sparkled on “Afro Blue” as well, giving Moffitt the support she needed to cut loose, making the song perhaps the most enjoyable number on the program. Conservatory junior Matt Davis provided the cherry on “Touch of Your Love” with a short but sweet plunger solo on trombone.
Reynolds prefaced Dennis Mackrel’s “Bust Dust” with an explanation of the title’s meaning. As he explained it, “Bust Dust” is the action of getting rid of the grime of the road by playing music, and as promised the band delivered, swinging like it was trying to get a monkey off its back. The freshmen certainly came in full force with tenor saxophonist David Wise ripping a lengthy and inspired solo and Wilcox, who apparently was also going by the pseudonym “Roy Coleman,” exhibited his technical prowess but maintained the same soulfulness shown in his solo on “Butter.”
The program ended with another Thad Jones tune, “Fingers,” with several soloists showing off appropriate dexterity. Davis got around his horn with ease but also with a lightness that would have been just as at home in a Bach cantata. Conservatory junior and pianist Julian Chin was extremely playful on his solo, at times almost teasing the audience with abrupt changes in direction.
Conservatory sophomore alto saxophonist Arnold Lee, Conservatory senior guitarist Henry Heinitsch, Conservatory sophomore bassist Emma Dayhuff and Conservatory junior drummer Jake Robinson all contributed equally agile solos to the number, finishing with a vibe that could’ve sent many audience members skipping back to their dorm rooms.
Although the program lasted barely an hour and had its share of small mishaps, the OJE played with as much strength and inspiration as I’ve ever seen the group display.
We can all look forward to their next performance, which will feature Oliver Nelson’s “Sound Piece for Jazz Orchestra.” We should expect them to “Bust Dust” as handily as they did on St. Patty’s Day. Maybe Reynolds even kept that Shamrock.