Review: Fedchock and DePaul jazz band hit hard

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Surely there's nothing more inspiring in jazz than seeing talented students share a spotlight with a virtuoso soloist.

We get to watch – and listen – as valued traditions are passed from one generation to the next where it matters most: on the concert stage. If all goes well, we realize anew that a great music will live on.

That was the primary lesson of Thursday night's dynamic opening set at the Jazz Showcase, where the commanding trombonist John Fedchock was guest soloist with the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble (as well as its de facto leader through most of the performance). Though the students found themselves well outside the classroom, they were learning a great deal about working under pressure, and with each succeeding piece they showed themselves increasingly well-equipped for the occasion.

Even from their first collaboration with Fedchock, in his hyperactive arrangement of Juan Tizol's "Caravan," the students gave the star soloist plenty of sound and fury. The DePaul band's snarling brass and complexly layered rhythms provided vivid backdrop for Fedchock's fleet and buoyant trombone lines. In the final, climactic pages, these students were not afraid to sound out at full cry, Fedchock's phrases soaring above the orchestral blasts.

Fedchock and friends dialed everything down a bit in his arrangement of the standard "Never Let Me Go," the trombonist's muted tone reflected in a softer, warmer tonal palette from the band. Similarly, Fedchock's version of Lee Morgan's "Ceora" showed the students consistently playing just under the soloist's volume level, no small feat. Fedchock's elegant ensemble writing here featured phrases that cascaded from one section of the band to the next. Still, one wishes that Fedchock had resisted the temptation – in both pieces – to conclude with muscular ensemble passages and busy, intensifying solos. A bona fide ballad that didn't reach for the big finish would have deepened the impact of this set.

Even so, there was no missing the dexterity and musicality of Fedchock's solos, his high-velocity playing built on substantive thematic development and detailed melodic embellishment.

Though Fedchock obviously was the dominant player on stage, this edition of the DePaul band was staffed by strong soloists (not always the case in even the better college bands). Alto saxophonist Brent Griffin tipped his hat to one of the most influential altoists of all time, Johnny Hodges, in the way Griffin slid up to pitches in Bradley Williams' arrangement of Ralph Burns' "Early Autumn" and offered classic bebop frenzy in "Flintstoned" (Fedchock's maniacal transformation of the theme from the old TV show " The Flintstones"). Fedchock's rapid-fire articulation here pushed at the outer limits of what the trombone is supposed to be able to achieve.

Perhaps the most important person in this music-making spent the least amount of time on stage: DePaul professor Bob Lark, who set the tempo for evening's first two pieces but quickly yielded the spotlight to his students and guest soloist. Lark's behind-the-scenes work piqued one's interest in the band's newly minted album, "The DePaul University Jazz Ensemble with Jeff Hamilton Salutes Woody Herman."

The evening's applause naturally went to Fedchock and the students, but a large share of the credit clearly belonged to the man who stood on the sidelines and watched it all happen – Lark.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

John Fedchock with the DePaul University 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: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

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