Textual Review: Jazz Combo Concert

Ben Caldwell ‘21

Music Correspondent

Last Thursday night, the Music Department hosted the Davidson College Jazz Combos, a showcase of two student bands. The show was in Tyler-Tallman Hall; Davidson locals made up most of the audience. 

The room was unusually quiet, even before the lights went down, and it was immediately clear to me that the performers themselves would be responsible for bringing the energy to the room. They didn’t disappoint.

The aptly named trio “The Five O’Clock Combo” (Matt Bell ‘19, guitar; John Turlington ‘21, bass; Frank Carrol ‘19, drums) played first. The staging was sparse—with Carrol’s drum set tucked toward the back, Bell and Turlington almost looked like isolated soloists in the empty space. When they began to play, though, they brought the skill and charisma to fill the stage. 

With a short introduction and little fanfare, they dropped into the first song, Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life,” followed by Esbjörn Svensson’s “Tuesday Wonderland.” Their third song, Norman Whitfield’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” was for me the highlight of their set; because the original tune is so memorable, their departure from it left a much stronger impression. 

Turlington and Carrol laid the foundation for Bell’s guitar work, but each musician still found the space to let his personality flow through his performance. Several times, Bell played the melody through an effects pedal which looped and repeated it. This allowed him to add layers of improvisation and harmony overtop, making it sound as though there was another musician onstage. 

Though uncommon in a jazz performance, the effect was a welcome accessory to the trio. They created variation by falling into hypnotic, repetitive phrases and then breaking back out of them, keeping the audience on their toes.

All three are clearly accomplished musicians, but it was their stage presence that truly made the show fun. They were smiling the entire time and dressed more casually than most of the audience. They kept in constant nonverbal communication; sometimes they would exchange knowing glances before going into a solo, and I got the sense that they were about to let me in on an inside joke. 

The second group, “The Six O’Clock Combo” (Ken Lee, saxophone; Emery Nash ‘20, trombone; Will Messner ‘20, guitar; Thomas Hammons ‘21, bass; Brendan Cassidy ‘19, drums; Patrick Sullivan ‘21, piano), started after the intermission. Unlike the first trio, they had no choice but to fill the stage. 

They played a diverse setlist and put their own spin on works by Gene DePal and Mongo Santamaría. Their performances ranged from melancholy to danceable, and they found a healthy middle ground between novelty and authenticity to the original piece. 

Despite their numbers, each musician found the space to showcase their skills, alternating between supporting roles and solos, and provided each other with ample room to show off. The group’s back-and-forth maneuvers put a spotlight on their musical rapport. 

It was most obvious during their final song, Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues,” when each instrument had a solo. These solos had a definitive sense of humour–the “Six” would work together to craft the setup, stirring up anticipation in the audience, and then one instrument would take the spotlight to deliver the punchline. Throughout the set, the leading melodies left ample room for Hammons and Cassidy (bass and drums, respectively), whose performances were fresh enough to resist falling into the background. 

Nevertheless, Ken Lee’s saxophone solos might’ve drawn the biggest reaction from the crowd (as saxophone solos are wont to do); Elizabeth Miller ’20 referred to Ken as a “Christ-like figure” after the show—whatever transcendent energy resides within that instrument, Ken has mastered it.

Earnest critiques of either Combo are few and far between. They both played diverse setlists, alternating between well-known and more obscure songs, but didn’t shy away from taking refreshing artistic liberties with their source material. 

The “Five” had the more upbeat set, but the “Six” played the somber songs with enough gusto to hold the audience’s attention. They owned the room for the duration of the night; their hours of practice were obvious in their sound but didn’t show on their faces. Both bands brought the energy and enthusiasm of newcomers. At the end of the show, Director Tim Gordon gave a heartfelt farewell to seniors Matt Bell, Frank Carrol, Ken Lee, and Brendan Cassidy.

Ben Caldwell ‘21 is an English Major from Chattanooga, TN. He can be reached for comment at becaldwell@davidson.edu

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