UCI’s Jazz Orchestra Falls Flat

Jazz is daring! It defies classical structure and distorted what was once known about music. A good jazz set is versatile and it wets the palate with the different flavors of the discipline. Modern and classic; Fast-swing and ballad; Shuffle and medium. The infinite binaries and permutations of sound make it the most well-rounded of all the music genres. The UCI Jazz Orchestra fails to capture the versatility of the iconic style.

Directing the ensemble is Grammy-nominated recording artist Bobby Rodriguez. Rodriguez proudly introduced the ensemble along with several faculty members who joined the big band for the night’s performance.

A wall of sound kicks off the concert — a deceptively powerful beginning. The façade quickly fades as the sloppy articulation of the band begins to seep through. The seasoned faculty cannot hide the inadequacies of the younger players.

In jazz, the band’s style is dictated by the lead trumpet and the lead sax. Professor Brad Steinway exemplified clearly defined stylistic leadership in the trumpets, but no clear stylistic integrity came from the lead sax. Without clearly defined style from the leadership, what emerged from the section was a muddled mess of disunified distortion.

As students stepped up to improvise — that is, make up a solo on the spot — four problems quickly became apparent: the soloists were not close enough to the microphone, the background musicians overpowered the soloists, the solos lacked direction and communication between the rhythm section and the soloists were absent. These flaws, while elusive to less seasoned observers, subtract from the true jazz experience.

Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” followed next. The goal of a slower medium swing is to capture the laid-back feel resting on the backside of the beat. The piano, drums and bass are responsible for holding down this feeling, which they did at times. As the song became busier — more voices entered — that sense of cool just faded away. When the big band played rhythmic melodies in unison, the poor precision in articulation and time defeated the intended impact of the lines; the key is to listen to each other and lock in as a group. The Jazz Orchestra failed to do so and the result was a cascade of notes from many players instead of one sound as one ensemble.

“Maria Elena,” the sultry bolero, came immediately after. The song is a lamentation of love, longing, anguish and agony. The ensemble just doesn’t capture those emotions. There’s a difference between playing music and just playing notes on a page; the orchestra does the latter and neglects the song’s soul. Professor Rodriguez makes up for the musicians’ shortcomings with a lovely solo. Phrases of love sing out from the man’s trumpet.

The biggest disappointment of the night was the butchery of polyrhythmic standard “Afro Blue.” The piece just felt beyond the skill level of the jazz orchestra. The slow careful tempo and inauthentic stylistic interpretation twisted what should be an exciting piece into what can only be described as plain uninspiring. For a band with four alternating drummers, it’s astounding that they chose to forgo a Latin rhythm section on “Afro Blue.”

The band’s stoic faces and body language compounded the monotony of their set. “Mood Indigo” and “Romeo’s Smile” felt more like fillers than artistic expressions of soul and beauty.

The concert’s saving grace was the soprano sax soloist on the final piece, “Sand Dune.” Her exceptional and radiating passion were a hint of what this jazz band can aspire to be.

The UCI Jazz Orchestra has a long road ahead. The seeds of excellence are afforded by the all-star staff of the university, but vital passion can only come from inside the performers. This just isn’t what the genre is meant to be: no fire, no flare, no soul — no jazz.