On Thursday evening’s concert at the Singleton Center, the music performed by VCU’s Jazz Orchestra I displayed a varied program consisting of three staples of Ellingtonia along with a cross-section of big band writing. Led by the jovial director Antonio Garcia, the Jazz Orchestra I made the selections look easy.
On Thursday evening’s concert at the Singleton Center, the music performed by VCU’s Jazz Orchestra I displayed a varied program consisting of three staples of Ellingtonia along with a cross-section of big band writing. The program covered much swinging repertoire, in addition to Latin and contemporary styles. There were two classy vocal features, and even some high-pressure sight reading. Led by the jovial director Antonio Garcia, the Jazz Orchestra I made the selections look easy.
The ensemble opened the show with two famous arrangements by Duke Ellington, the first of which was “Cottontail,” including all the classic solos performed from transcriptions. The orchestra’s soloists captured the spirit of those gems well, and these included trumpeter Sam Koff, tenor saxophonist Chris Sclafani, baritone saxophonist Brendan Schnabel, and pianist Brian Mahne. The second Ellington selection had a backstory that Garcia imparted to the audience: the ballad “Isfahan” that appears as a part of The Far East Suite was actually originally titled “Elf” and was penned years before the Middle/Far East tour that the Ellington organization did in 1963. Alto saxophonist Suzi Fischer provided a warm-toned reading of the ballad’s celestial melody, more than just nodding at Johnny Hodges’s recorded version. She embodied his lyricism and finesse.
Vocalist Gianna Barone sang with pep on the uptempo “How High the Moon,” arranged by Quincy Jones. Her spritely vocalizing was further enhanced by the joyful way she “lived the lyrics” with her expressions.
An inventive tune called “Papier Maché” by composer David Leone, had an arrangement by Ed Palermo that called for additional flute players. At least one selection of contemporary repertoire is normally included in a university band program nowadays, and “Papier Maché” did display great challenges in rhythmic variety and unexpected sectional changes. Fischer soloed with funky lines, followed by Mahne switching to a keyboard organ for a shredding solo. The tune alternated from bursting brass figures to quirky “tic-toc” imitations, and was held together by a returning vamp. Despite the variety in the arrangement, the overly-dramatic and disjointed ending came off as unintentionally contrived.
The Latin Jazz selection “Floreando” opened the second half of the show, and the descarga (jamming) alternated between tenorist Arrington and altoist Fischer, before a dancing piano solo by Mahne. The trading between the timbales of drummer Kevin Johnson and congas of Dean Christesen were crisp and heated.
An arrangement by Quincy Jones of Ellington’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street” had at one time been a feature for Ella Fitzgerald and the Count Basie Orchestra. On Thursday’s performance, vocalist Barone worked to capture Ella’s style effectively on this swinging number, which also featured a muted solo by trumpeter Lucas Fritz, who imparted the blues that the Basie band knew so well. Director Garcia mentioned that he played with Fitzgerald in the 1980s, and indeed many of the VCU faculty are recognized for their varied and numerous feathers in their caps. Garcia also took time to thank the people that make VCU’s music program exceptional. These were the donors, the music organization on campus, front office staff, technical staff, and also the distinguished students that had earned scholarships for the upcoming term.
Once the administrative duties were checked off his list, Garcia then took a chance to test his students in a reading of an original ballad he recently wrote and dedicated to his wife. Members of the audience were outwardly bewildered that sight reading could happen in this performance setting, but the Jazz Orchestra played Garcia’s pleasing ballad with impressive skill. Indeed, Garcia’s educational purpose is to prepare his students to not be caught off guard when entering the challenging working world. Faculty trumpeter Rex Richardson, filling in the trumpet section, delivered a controlled, lightly bopping improvised solo.
Closing out the evening concert, the whole band dug in on a blisteringly fast riff-based arrangement of their own construction of a tune simply called “Basie” by saxophonist Ernie Watts. Arrington, Fischer, and Mahne each were featured, after which the horn sections built to a rousing shout chorus. As fast as the tune started out, it ended just as abruptly, with a charged-up drum solo by Johnson, who ended his unaccompanied feature with a grand pause followed by a cue to the rest of the orchestra and conductor Garcia for a final note.
A degree program like VCU’s prepares the graduates to handle the demands of performing many types of music, and approaching each through the guiding light of experience. Many are already working as musicians, and they are skilled in many facets of music from performance to composition to teaching. With last Thursday’s concert, VCU’s promising students let their talents as well as hard work get put on display, and the result was a complete pleasure.