Jazz Cats Welcome Old Friend

Matt Bell ‘19

Staff writer

The Davidson College Jazz Ensemble (DCJE) took the stage at the Duke Family Performance Hall for their annual January concert featuring a guest alumnus. The first half of their performance consisted of the music that the Ensemble played on their tour during winter break and the second featured Michael Glaser, class of ’92, on the drums.

This year’s concert harbors an unusual context: the Ensemble with the Davidson College Orchestra recently finished their touring tenure aboard the Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas cruise ship, where over 500 passengers contracted norovirus, ending the vacation early. The story made international news. Fifteen out of about 70+ students and one faculty member become sick with the virus. “Purell became our best friend,” joked Dr. Bill Lawing, the director of the DCJE, acknowledging the passenger-ship-sized elephant in the room.

Proving victoriously recovered, the Ensemble began their concert with a collection of traditional jazz charts, and it became apparent that Dr. Lawing had unwittingly suggested an excellent metaphor to describe the Ensemble’s performance: the group plays very clean, well rehearsed, and somewhat sanitized varieties of Ellington-era swing, early hard bop, and raucous Gordon Goodwin’s Phat [sic] big band arrangements. Sticking to the formula, the Ensemble rarely strayed into any nontraditional territory in the first half of their set.

A prime example of this bowdlerization would be Mr. Goodwin’s arrangement of “Seven Steps to Heaven,” by Miles Davis, from the album of the same name. Goodwin removes the space for interplay between the horns and the rhythm section, the main source of charm on the original record, favoring loud and turgid brass lines. The arrangement seems to forget what makes the song great in the first place—that is, it prevents the DCJE from emulating the conversations had between Miles, George Coleman, and crew. The arrangement would more appropriately accompany a tuxedoed man tipping his boho fedora, professing to a musical’s protagonist about the fickleness of show business.  

The notable exception to this rule during the first half of the setlist was Jeremy Levy’s “It’s Like That,” a John Schofield-inspired jazz-fusion that featured a spectacular soprano saxophone solo from Ken Lee ‘19. His solo bent tonal notes into blues notes; expressing a spontaneous logic in his chorus, Lee relied on angular, jauntily inflected, and urbane lines throughout.

The second half of the set brought on Michael Glaser ‘92 to play a group of drum features. Glaser teaches percussion at University of Alabama Birmingham and has had a varied musical background. Beginning his music career at Davidson as a major, Glaser continued to pursue music after graduation. In his professional career, he has opened for groups like The Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans, soul outfit St. Paul & The Broken Bones, and Counting Crows. With Glaser, the Ensemble played more relaxed, communicative, and engaging music for the second half of their set.

Glaser is a very talented musician. Each song gave room for Glaser to exhibit his versatility. The set began with a kitschy arrangement of Little Drummer Boy (no joke) that interpolated sections into the score from Neal Hefti’s Count Basie swing chart “Cute.” For how farfetched that setup may sound, the Ensemble handled the call and response moments well.

The next highlight in the second half was Andrew Homzy’s arrangement of Charles Mingus’s “Moanin’.” The rendition opened with a baritone saxophone cadenza from Koyo Song. Song then played the melody, making jolting leaps through intervals and sounding almost disjunctive. The arrangement opens up to include layers and layers of different harmonies from each section as the melody is repeated. The song featured arguably the most complex moment of interaction between trumpeter Andrew Wright ‘20 and trombonist Emery Nash ‘20, who traded solo sections. The two echoed and augmented each other’s ideas, beginning their choruses where the other had left off. Glaser then took the reins, performing a solo cadenza. His performance stayed quiet but kinetic, becoming a gradual diminuendo and ritardando, then dissolving into silence before Song jumpstarted the melody and finished off the piece. 

In the second half of the show, the Davidson College Jazz Ensemble again showed that they rise to the occasion when the group has guest artists. This uptick in quality has made the group and Davidson more broadly a really unexpected but viable place to hear good jazz. In 2015, the spring artist in residency was trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, a prominent American jazz recording artist (of the legendary Marsalis jazz family). The next year, world-class clarinetist Anat Cohen performed with the Ensemble. Last year, Chick Corea–arguably one of the best living jazz piano players–was the artist-in-residency, selling out the Duke Performance Hall, a historic first for the Ensemble.

This upcoming semester, Pat Metheny, another all-time jazz musician and composer, will be performing with the Ensemble. Metheny will be workshopping with the group for a week before the concert, giving them ample time to become familiar with him and his oeuvre. The performance is slated for April 12 at the Duke Family Performance Hall. In the meantime, Davidson should certainly be grateful to modern antivirals for saving our broadly skilled and sporadically enthralling jazz ensemble.

Matt Bell ‘19 is an English and Math double major from Seattle, Washington. He can be reached for comment at mabell@davidson.edu

 

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