U-M Jazz Showcase
Academia after dark at the Ark
by Piotr Michalowski
In a little over a century, jazz has traveled from the cathouses of Storyville to concert halls and universities, with some colorful episodes en route. The academic environment is safer, healthier, and more dignified, but sometimes the results are somewhat predictable and the recipes lack a pinch or more of cayenne. It must also be said that contemporary jazz requires technical sophistication that is difficult to come by without formal studies, and thus the days of the autodidacts may soon be over. Jazz education has become a large business, and curricula at major universities differ in their profiles, competing nationally and even internationally for the best students. Over the last decade or so, the U-M program has definitely become one of the best in the country, with a unique take on things.
The U-M jazz program has two defining characteristics: it covers a broad range of styles and periods, and the teachers are all active performers as well as academics. All of this will be on parade on Thursday, April 5, when faculty and students perform together at the U-M Jazz Showcase at the Ark. The centerpiece of the evening will be the seven-part Sweet Time Suite, composed by the eminent trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and played by a large ensemble, featuring student soloists Justin Walter, Matt Endahl, Tucker Antell, Daniel Schlein, and Derek Barber. This is an ambitious work, with many shifting tempos and textures; it was first recorded by an all-star ensemble, with the soprano voice of Norma Winstone lending a very specific sound to some sections. It will be interesting to hear how these young players tackle this difficult and subtle work.
The big band will also take on an original arrangement of Michael Jackson's "Burn This Disco Out" by student Brad Phillips, and Michael Gacetta will present an arrangement of the evening's standard, "Over the Rainbow." Pianist Matt Endahl will lead a more avant-garde student group that goes by the name Symbology, and
the contemporary strain will continue when trumpeter and teacher Mark Kirschenmann leads the improvising Creative Arts Orchestra.
The faculty will be featured in smaller settings. Pianist and composer Ellen Rowe will present . . . And Miles to Go, her septet written in honor of her late friend Molly Sap, who struggled with lymphoma. In addition to her own piano, the piece will feature the expressive flugelhorn of professor Ed Sarath, whose playing and composing offer a rare combination of romanticism and the most adventurous trends in improvised music. There will also be pieces featuring three other teachers in the program: the expressive trombonist Dennis Wilson, the versatile and subtle percussionist Michael Gould, and Donald Walden, one of my favorite tenor saxophonists and a marvelous composer as well.
This is not a typical university jazz student concert; it is full of unusual music and original compositions, as well as improvisation. It will be a fascinating evening for anyone interested in both the past and the future of jazz.
[Review published April 2007]