Chank-dank-a-dank-dank-a-dank! That all-too-familiar swing pattern rang out from Winifred Smith Hall Wednesday night as the Claire Trevor School of the Arts presented its annual Spring Jazz Orchestra Concert.
The young and fresh-faced orchestra took the stage with a relaxed and friendly demeanor. Several faculty members took lead spots among the students, and director Bobby Rodriguez ushered in the night’s music with his charming and endless wit.
The first song “On the Edge” got off to a bumpy start; the articulation was sloppy throughout the ensemble, but once time settled in the pocket the orchestra performed much stronger stylistically.
The next piece, a medium swing entitled “Everything’s All Right,” showcased the newfound rhythmic and dynamic cohesiveness coming from parts of the ensemble. The bass and brass held down tricky rhythmic patterns with relative precision. The saxes, conversely, sounded a bit sloppier. However, saxophonist Laura Ochikubo delivered a fantastic and well-structured improvised solo.
The classic Duke Ellington standard “In a Sentimental Mood” followed next. The piece primarily featured lead tenor sax Nicolas Maldonado. Maldonado’s raspy and sultry tone suited the piece perfectly, but at times it felt there were missed opportunities for more phrasing and inflections. His style and note choice during his solo were original and exciting.
“Soft and Gentle” — a Latin chart — was stylistically solid, but the absence of additional Latin percussion such as bongos and congas subtracted from the authenticity of the music, and energy began to fade as the chart progressed.
To change things up, the ensemble followed with the more up-tempo “Bop Rain.” The drummer had an excellent swing style feel to his drumming, but at the softer tempos some of the rhythmic precision in the brass faded a bit. Rodriguez, the lead tenor and the drums expanded on each other’s energy as they traded short solos.
The following piece was solid, but the surprise of the night followed as master pianist and Chancellor’s Professor Kei Akagi ever-humbly took the stage. An unimposing man, Akagi’s kind and considerate demeanor hides the soul of a true artist and master musician.
Akagi’s energy transformed the next piece, “Viva Hidalgo.” Suddenly, all the sloppiness and cracks within the ensemble tightened up as if reflexive to Akagi’s presence. Akagi and Bobby Rodriguez have an incredible symbiotic energy. Individually each musician is exceptional, and together they enhanced each other.
Ending the concert was a simple blues piece. In true blues nature, the soloist dominated the selection. Akagi’s right hand raced across the keys spelling out lick after lick, while his left hand held down the chord changes in support of the right. Akagi’s mastery shines through as he subtly fills in the empty space of other soloists in a way that compliments, but never overpowers the performers. The piece culminated in Akagi trading fours (four bar solos) with drummer Tomas M. Granillo.
From the first chart it was clear that this is a whole new UCI Jazz Orchestra. Not the sloppy mess from fall, but now a respectable jazz unit. In particular, the clarity in articulation from the brass is almost incomparable to earlier in the year, and the soloists have all demonstrated more mature and sophisticated rhythmic and note choices.
Make no mistake; there is tremendous room for growth. While their overall sectional cohesiveness has improved, the saxophones still lack a uniform approach to the music causing problems in articulation and phrasing. Things like greater variety in tempo and more creative use of the rhythm section percussionists would also improve the overall quality and variety in the Orchestra’s sound. Additionally, it feels like the professional musicians are used as a crutch for the ensemble at times.
Shortcomings aside, the hours these musicians dedicate to their art is evident in their tremendous growth from fall. Hopefully UCI continues this trend and continues to develop its tender jazz program.