If you were looking for an evening of great music last Tuesday night, you should have been in the Eastman Theatre for the Eastman New Jazz Ensemble’s first performance of the semester, which featured guest artist Joey Sellers, who is currently the Director of Jazz Studies at Saddleback College in California.
I walked in a few minutes before the concert started and was immediately impressed by the extremely relaxed atmosphere. As the audience, myself included, finished filing into the theatre, the seventeen-member ensemble tuned.
The lights dimmed and director Dave Rivello came onstage to introduce the evening’s composer and conductor, Joey Sellers, who has won several very prestigious awards in jazz composition.
“Sellers’ writing is continuing to be more and more recognized,” Rivello said. “We’ve had a great time the last couple of days with Sellers. It’s just been a lot of fun.”
The concert opened with Sellers’ “Ximeno, 735.” Unfortunately, the piano was a little hard to hear in sections when the full ensemble was playing, but the piece was performed solidly and with a very refreshing sound. For the most part, Sellers stood off to the side, letting the group tie into each other’s playing while offering the occasional musical suggestion or beat to keep them together. The alto saxophone solo, which was played by Matt Vashlishan, was an almost flawless performance and the soloists — saxophonist Ed Rosenberg and pianist Mamiko Kitaura — played just as well.
The next piece was an arrangement by Sellers and featured him playing trombone. While it took a few minutes for the ensemble to get into the groove and although there were times when the trombone solos were muffled by the microphone and hindered by some mistakes, the piece maintained a constant energy throughout. Additionally, the variety within Sellers’ solo was truly appreciated, and the end of the piece was greeted with a few hollers from the crowd.
Again, however, I felt like the audience wasn’t really there. While Sellers’ acknowledged the applause this time more than he had at the end of the first piece, it felt as though he would have preferred to just be rehearsing with the ensemble, rather than performing a concert. Happily, this feeling was swayed when Sellers stepped up to the microphone to introduce the next.
Before introducing the piece, another arrangement titled “Tenderly,” Sellers did was to echo Rivello’s sentiment. “Yeah, this is a lot of fun,” Sellers said. “I don’t often have the pleasure of this fine of an ensemble.”The next piece sounded a little “punchy” in some places of the trombone solo, which was again played by Sellers. However, it seemed to work well with the ensemble’s more legato lines throughout the piece. Again, there were some technical flaws in the solo, but Sellers was obviously enjoying himself and this sentiment — which is not always evident during performances — brought back the laid back feeling that existed at the beginning of the concert.
After the piece Sellers returned to the microphone, thanking Eastman for the opportunity to be able to work with such a talented ensemble. In reference to his own playing in the third piece, he said, “[it was] not as tender as I would have liked on the trombone, but fun nonetheless.” Without question, Sellers was having a great time and this did an excellent job adding to the enjoyment of an already excellent concert.
The next piece, “Miss Rogers’ Boots,” was by far and away my favorite. As soon as it started, it felt almost like people were dancing to spy music. It was great. When trombone soloist Russell Scarborough stepped up to the microphone, it was like the spotlight had been turned to one of the better dancers on the stage as everyone gathered around in a circle to watch them dance. There was even a sax and piccolo duet at one point and, if you weren’t convinced of spy music before they played, you definitely were now.
Perhaps one of the strongest pieces of this concert was the alto sax solo performed by Alex Tabaka during this piece.
His clear, vibrant sound cut straight through the ensemble, and the solo was pretty close to technically flawless. It showcased Tabaka’s technical and musical skill, spanning the entire range of the instrument and several musical interpretations.
I’d be hard-pressed to say that Tabaka enjoyed playing this concert any less than Sellers did but, without question, Tabaka’s solo was one of the highlights of the evening.
The rest of the concert continued to be a treat for the audience. The next piece, “Rain As Grace,” was also written by Sellers. He called it a “beautiful ballad” and it sounded almost like a conversation between soprano sax and piano, which were played by Vashlishan and Kitaura, respectively. There were similar musical motifs in both parts and the piece really captured the steady and relaxing feel of a dreary rainy day.
The concert ended just about an hour after it began, and maintained the same sort of relaxed atmosphere that you find at chamber music concerts throughout the entire evening. It was so good that I left the concert without feeling the least bit panicked about the fact that I had a ten page paper due in two days that I still hadn’t started.
My advice to all Eastman and UR students? If you have a major paper or test next Friday and you didn’t make it to this concert, then procrastinate next Thursday night. Start spring break early and go to the Eastman Jazz Ensemble’s concert in Kilbourn Hall, beginning at 8 p.m. You’ll walk away in a state of bliss that you probably haven’t felt in ages. You may even sleep through all of your Friday classes.
Jansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.