Major soloists play the Jazz Showcase all the time, but something special often happens when the star shares the stage with students.
The latest example came Thursday night, as trumpeter Jeremy Pelt – who has made a strong impression leading his own bands at the Showcase – fronted the Columbia College Jazz Ensemble.
Though the Columbia players are newer to this setting than, say, the jazz students of DePaul University (who have held many residencies at the Showcase), Columbia held its own. Indeed, the young musicians turned in consistently persuasive work, showing musical maturity and stylistic sensitivity.
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806 South Plymouth Court, Chicago, IL 60605, USA
No doubt the lion's share of the credit goes to director Scott Hall, who clearly has trained these students rigorously in the performance practices of specific jazz idioms. Music inspired by Louis Armstrong, for instance, requires radically different phrasing, attacks and voicings than later work by Clifford Brown or Bobby Timmons. Hall clearly has enlightened these instrumentalists on the particulars of various jazz styles, the Columbia musicians giving him pretty much what he was asking for.
That was especially the case in Hall's "Millennium Park Stomp," an evocation of – or a fantasy on – music of Armstrong's era (complete with an introductory quotation from Satchmo's immortal opening solo on "West End Blues"). Though Hall's piece is contemporary, its methodology is rooted in 1920s New Orleans jazz, and these students played this music with remarkable fidelity to this tradition.
From inexorable crescendos to dance-hall downbeats to exquisite trumpet-choir passages, the Columbia kids showed what classic New Orleans syntax is all about. And though that opening, Armstrong-inspired solo clearly still poses technical challenges, the ensemble showed real understanding of a jazz era that may seem prehistoric to them.
Soloist Pelt captured the flavor of the period, as well, peppering his solos with raspy growls and piercing high notes. He struggled a bit, though, with the glissandi that early-period New Orleans specialists such as Nicholas Payton dispatch to perfection. Even so, when Pelt and the band tore into the double-time finale of the piece, you knew these musicians shared a great respect and love for the pre-bebop fundamentals of jazz.
Pelt was firmly in his element elsewhere in the set, particularly in Timmons' classic "Moanin'." The trumpeter's brilliant tone, piercing high notes and visceral sense of swing set a high standard for his young colleagues. They lived up to it in the recap of the tune, starting whisper soft and building the kind of relentless crescendo that's a lot harder to control than casual listeners might realize.
No matter what Pelt and the band were playing, however, they conveyed a palpable exuberance. Brown's "Joy Spring," especially, offered buoyant exchanges between Pelt and the band.
When Columbia music department chair Richard Dunscomb took the helm from Hall, the band changed tone, producing shimmering orchestral colors in Quincy Jones' "Quintessence," with fervently lyrical playing from guest alto saxophonist Manuel Trabucco.
And though even talented young musicians often struggle with solos, the Columbia ensemble offered unusually promising work from alto saxophonist Alex Kerwin (who loves unconventional turns of phrase and unexpected chord choices) and tenor saxophonist Erick Mateo (whose imagination overflows with ideas).
Bravo to these young musicians, and to Pelt, for treating them as colleagues – which, on this night, they certainly were.
Jeremy Pelt with Columbia College Jazz Ensemble
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 and 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $15-$30; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com