Concert: The Cole Porter Night
After a week of intensive rehearsals with the Tierney Sutton Band, guest horn section leaders, and 11 members of the Aargau Youth Jazz Orchestra (AYJO), the time had arrived for the Cole Porter Night Concert. Christian Jacob, the musical director for the concert and arranger of many of the works on the program, welcomed the audience and introduced the Tierney Sutton Band members and section leaders, Tia Fuller (saxophones), Steve Reid (trumpets), and Tom Garling (trombones), before giving the down beat. The first selection was a rollicking rendition of Porter’s “I Love You” that showcased Sutton’s impressive vocal stylings as well as jazz solos from Garling and Fuller.
On “Easy to Love”, there was much to love about Sutton’s voice as she sent high notes floating effortlessly above the horn and rhythm sections. AYJO tenor saxophonist Christoph Huber, the featured jazz soloist, deftly explored the tune’s harmonic complexities in all ranges of his instrument. (It was announced at the end of the concert that Huber has been awarded a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in 2009.)
The mood changed with the ballad “After You.” Jacob told the audience that six months ago, he was unfamiliar with the song, but it has since become one of his favorites. Sutton’s dark-hued vocals caressed the song’s romantic lyrics. Drummer Ray Brinker marked the key change and shift from ballad mode to a back-beat beneath solos by Fuller, Jacob, and Garling
The first of two departures from the music of Porter came with the premiere of Concerto For Charles, a new instrumental work composed by festival director Fritz Renold. Christoph Schnyder, Renold’s former student, was the clarinet soloist. The eclectic work touched on a multitude of styles, incorporating among other things, Latin rhythms and Middle Eastern sounds. Schnyder was in top form as he negotiated his lines and Steve Reid chose his notes thoughtfully during his muted trumpet improvisation.
Other highlights of the concert’s first half included an alluring piano-vocal duet on “All of You.” After Jacob’s impressionistic piano accompaniment offered tender support to Sutton’s sultry vocal. Before the intermission, the full orchestra augmented the Sutton Band’s arrangement of “I Get a Kick Out of You.” The fast swing number showcased the razor-sharp ensemble work of both the rhythm section and members of the horn section as they alternated whole-note chord pads and staccato jabs.
The second half began with Kurt Weill’s “September Song” played as a solo by AYJO pianist Marcel Czaja. He took the tune on a journey that was sometimes rhythmic and at other times rhapsodic. Sutton returned to the microphone for “In the Still of the Night,” noting, “In my band we like dark music, and this is one of my favorites.” Indeed, the horn section with muted trumpets brought on the night with dense and dark passages quietly seeping in under Sutton’s smoky vocal and Jacob’s pensive piano work.
Sutton scatted effortlessly over the propulsive groove laid down by bassist Axt and drummer Brinker on “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”. The orchestra sat out for “Don’t Fence Me In” surrendering the spotlight exclusively to the Tierney Sutton Quartet.
AYJO saxophonist Christoph Huber was once again featured on “Night and Day” and was a crowd pleaser with his extended improvisation. “Just One of Those Things” sung by Sutton for the most part with only drum accompaniment, revealed Sutton’s surefooted phrasing and flawless intonation. Jacob’s barnburner arrangement of “Love For Sale” was the show’s closer and had the band grooving in 7/4 meter. Solo work by Marcel Czaja, Steve Reid, Tia Fuller, and Ray Brinker and a splashy shout chorus ended the concert with a bang.
The audience’s vigorous applause, left the Sutton band and the orchestra, who hadn’t prepared an encore, no choice but to come and offer an enthusiastic reprise of the concert opener, “I Love You”.
Workshop: Getting the Funk
Studio guitarist Vernon “Ice” Black gave a Thursday morning workshop on funk improvisation. He began by showing the links between jazz, the blues and funk. Black asked the student rhythm section to play a sample of each kind of music. Throughout, he referred to the rhythmic foundation the band played in each style as “the floor.”
“I’m a big feel guy, I feel the floor,” said Black pointing downward. “We’re standing on a solid surface, the floor.” Black then invited different musicians to play a little over each groove. “Let’s talk about blending jazz with the blues,” he said. “In the blues, there is a different spirit, a different existence. There are fewer notes because it’s about a different sound and experience. Funk comes from the blues.”
As he began the discussion of funk, he spoke of his own awakening to that style. “In the beginning, I heard someone playing funk, and it took me over,” he said. “I wanted to do that—I had to do it. Every time you pick your axe up, I hope you feel that way, and then go for it. That’s how you find your own voice. It’s okay if you make a mistake, just make something out of it and you’ll playing something you never played before.”
Noting the reserved manner of some of the improvisers, Black set about coaxing more out them. “I’m going to change gears here. If you really want to express what you’re feeling, you gotta make some noise! Just let it out. Music is for expressing life’s emotions. Let it be all right to put your emotions out through your instrument.”
Black then built a groove in stages with the musicians from the floor upward. He got the drums, bass, and keyboards started on a groove. Then he sang out short melodic parts to the horn players, building a funky horn accompaniment as the players spontaneously harmonized the figures he gave them. Black invited a singer to wordlessly over the grove. He motioned to the horn players to end their figure and then cued different players to solo until everyone had a chance. As the players plugged into each other’s energy, soon the room was alive with the catchy groove.
After ending the jam, Black summed up what had just happened. “As you were soloing, did you notice your body language? You were all feeling it. Remember we started with the blues as a foundation, we mixed in a bit of jazz. You were leaving spaces. They are so important in funk improvisation. They are beautiful notes too. Don’t forget that.”
Workshop: Telling Your Story
Keyboardist Shedrick Mitchell gave a hands-on clinic on improvising on Thursday evening. Mitchell is a seasoned pro who has played with jazz artists Betty Carter, Kenny Garrett, and Jimmy Heath as well as pop diva Whitney Houston. He stressed to the students that the best improvisations tell the personal story of the improviser. To be able to tell that story on a given tune, the player or singer needs to really understand and feel the music.
Mitchell chose to Joe Zawinul’s popular tune “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” as a vehicle to bring his message home to the ensemble. Directing from the keyboard, he began by showing the rhythm section the chord progression. Next, he taught the horn players their parts. Finally, he added vocals, asking individual the singers to personalize the melody. “Put a little ‘stank’ on it!” Mitchell told them. He stopped one vocalist, and said, “You’re singing it too straight, give me more feeling, you’ve got to put your heart and soul into it.”
Now I want my horn players to play the melody,” Mitchell said. “Before we start the improv, I want you to move me with the melody.” After a few choruses, he asked one young horn player put down his instrument and to come to the microphone to sing the melody. “Now, you just sang it better than you played it,” he said. What’s up with that? You need to be able to match what you sing with your horn. Then you’ll be able to learn music away from your instrument.” Mitchell added to the point, stating, “Did you know that the best drummers sing? If they sing, they become very sensitive to vocalists because they know how loud to play and how to color the singer’s voice.”
Once Mitchell felt the musicians had learned the melody, it was time to start improvising. He went around the room having everyone get a chance to improvise and express themselves. Once the jam was over, Mitchell said, “I appreciate all of you and know that each of you has a story to tell.” He gave each performer a critique telling them what he liked about their individual approaches.
Mitchell closed the workshop by summing up the points he’d made. “The first thing is listen, and feel the music,” he said. “Really learn the melody so that you can sing it. Always remember that when you improvise, the people are expecting you to tell a story. If you’re a great storyteller, kids will listen. If you can get kids to listen, the adults will too. Finally, take a sophisticated approach to the rhythm of a piece, learn to displace the melody. Every time you play a song, try to play it a different way. That’s what I strive do. Finally, I encourage you to embrace all types of music.”
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