Just like classical music has its symphony orchestra or string quartet, you probably think of a small combo when you think of jazz—a three or four member rhythm section, perhaps a few horn players. It’s in this intimately communicative setting that we get to hear the best of what jazz can do—create that free exchange of ideas for which jazz has always been famous.
I arrived at the W.E. Singleton Center for Performing Arts Tuesday seeking just that, and VCU Jazz was eager to deliver. The Small Jazz Ensembles concert was given as part of the department of music’s ninth annual celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month—or “a month-long JAM,” as the program describes.
Six different groups played, each consisting of seven or eight players with slightly differing instrumentation. Each group entered and exited, perfectly aloof—they took their applause politely and silently, perhaps with a quick nod. The music transitioned from one set to the next with minimum fuss and a refreshing absence of interim chatter. The overall effect was not unlike listening to an album, but with all the satisfaction and vibrancy of a live performance.
Each band gave its take on standards by the likes of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and others. But where the concert truly shone – and where the audience was the most engaged – were the original numbers, written, arranged and now performed by VCU Jazz students that were interspersed throughout the program.
Early on we heard “Heart-Beat” by pianist Nick Berkina, a shimmery bossa with flute and vibraphone spotlights. Soon after, there was drummer/vibraphonist C.J. Alicea-Semanatte’s “Not Really”—whose intro was nothing short of spellbinding. The band enveloped its audience in a swarm of clangs and echoes as anxious and distant as they were overwhelming, like the dull roar of traffic at a bustling intersection.
“Park Avenue,” by trumpeter Nick Skinner, was peppery and upbeat, ending with a drum solo by Alicea-Semanatte that made fascinating and innovative use of near-minimalist motivic chunks. Trombonist John Hulley brought us “Um Dia; Um Rio; Uma Vida,” which made fun and engaging use of the band’s tonal ranges. The crowd cheered later when all but the rhythm section lowered their instruments to sing a few lines.
Tenor saxophonist Chris Sclafani’s “Riding Low, Living Slow” deserved every second of its applause. The sultry tenor saxophone and bass opening was clearly written to utilize Sclafani’s arrestingly human lyricism, like a torch song without words. Soon joined by Hulley’s growling wah-mute counterpoint, the intensity built steadily and almost dangerously with each chorus, but never broke out of its loose, sexy groove.
Top-notch playing was demonstrated in each of the sets, but by the end of the night it was the original music that had packed a lasting punch. Hopefully, we’ll hear much more from the inspired music-makers VCU Music has to offer in the future.