By RA Monaco
Referring to the level of musicianship participating in the 47th Annual Elmhurst College Jazz Festival, veteran artist-adjudicator Gary Smulyan struck the right chord in the closing moments of the event saying, “The future of jazz is in good hands.”
The maturity of the Elmhurst College Jazz Band that performed Sunday with this year’s artist-adjudicators Andy Martin, trombone, Bobby Shew, trumpet and Gary Smulyan , baritone saxophone, was clear evidence of a vibrant jazz community and the steady cultivation of skilled musicians by jazz educators like program director, Doug Beach.
Dating back to 1968, the list of artist-adjudicators and distinguished performers reads like a modern who’s who of icons in Jazz. In addition to this year’s artist-adjudicators, Festival performances also included Ryan Truesdell and the Gil Evans Project as well as The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra directed by Scotty Barnhart.
Following the concluding announcement of the Festival’s outstanding performances, the Elmhurst College Jazz Band opened with an arrangement by the great Bob Brookmeyer titled, “Get Out of Town.” which featured vocalist Jenna Hessin.
With no exaggeration, Ms. Hessin sounded as though she could stand next to even the most accomplished jazz vocalist. Her phrasing and understated melodic styling was uncommon at any level. Tenor saxophonist, Shelley Bishop’s ideas over the changes was fluid and that of a seasoned player. Her approach and sound was notably mature.
If listening is the most important part of practice, then the Elmhurst College Jazz Band has been doing some serious “listening” to the right people. Like journeymen, they read through the charts that featured performances by each artist-adjudicator with a precision that made me wonder what might’ve happen if a fly were to land on their chart—would they have played that too?
There was just no sitting still once the band kicked off the Tom Kubis arrangement of Caravan which featured trombonist Andy Martin. Andy sounded relaxed even at an energetic tempo. He has the range to summon dogs outside any concert hall, but most importantly, he has a great feel and is always musical.
I’ve known Andy, his brothers Scott and Stan, and their father Dave—all first rate musicians—since Andy was in High School. So, I’ll refrain from more over-the-top accolades except to say, that he can do it all and if you haven’t become familiar with his work then, get busy!
On a side note—pun intended—most jazz educators are familiar with the arrangements of Tom Kubis who has long been a favorite of mine. In the off chance that you haven’t heard or played any of Tom’s charts, I would say once again—get busy!
Featured on the jazz standard Body and Soul, baritone saxophonists, Gary Smulyan and Rob Zimmerman, from the Elmhurst College Jazz Band paired in an improvised conversation that lyrically drifted into Gary quoting Burt Bacharach’s “What’s it all about, Alfie?”
Gary’s confident, improvised exploration and the bigness of his sound was—inspiring, warm and inventive. When he spoke, he projected a genuine encouragement that surely penetrated Festival participants.
Like the word “jazz” itself, the term “Latin Jazz” means different things to different people. Bobby Shew’s embrace of the Tom Harrell tune “Terrestris” left no mistaking his love for jazz with a Latin-derivative. Often attacking with a hard-bop approach and then sounding almost sweet, he flared easily into the upper register of the horn commenting later that “it was a silly thing for a grown man to be doing.” Trust me when I say, there was nothing silly about his sounding so musical in whatever register he chose to play—have no doubt, he can do it.
Bobby’s sensitive interpretation of Bella Luce (For Conte Candoli) was, for me, the highlight of the evening. We spoke afterward and I discovered that his comments were as genuine as his playing—he was having a good time.
I’ve long considered Bobby Shew one of my all time favorites. Unfortunately, I’ve not had the opportunity to hear him play live since the late 70’s when he held down the lead trumpet book for the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band. As you might’ve gathered, I enjoyed myself at the Festival. Getting to meet, speak with and hear Bobby Shew once again was a great reminder for me to get out and hang—there’s just no substitute for feeling the energy.
You won’t need a Groupon to enjoy good jazz and a great value at next year’s 48th Annual Festival. This professionally judged event has become an annual community treasure, if not, a national treasure for jazz educators. Each year, artist-adjudicators conduct clinics, offer constructive critiques and perform with and for participants and the public. The 2015 Jazz Festival is already on calendar for February 27th through March 1st—program updates for the Festival can be found at: elmhurst.edu/jazzfestival
Year after year, lasting memories are created. The significance of the Festival for many was highlighted in the comments of Bobby Shew—who first performed as an artist-adjudicator in 1986—admitting that he struggles to remember the names of all the student-performers who continue to follow and attend the event, even decades after performing.
Jazz lovers and aspiring musicians, the end of the rainbow leads to the 48th Annual Elmhurst College Jazz Festival—hope to see you there.