By Javier Burdette
Winifred Smith Hall sizzled with conversation last Tuesday night as patrons sat waiting for the UCI Small Jazz Group Concert to commence. Elderly jazz fans from the community filled the theater alongside proud parents and members of the student body.
Snatches of Russian and Spanish emanated from the chatter. From behind the stark black curtains floated notes of a carefully plucked bass. As the doors closed, the chatter decreased audibly. Cell phones were set to silent and tucked away.
Three combos (small groups) took the stage, with the Thursday Combo up first. Aaron Greger and Tadeusz Takahashi started up Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” with conversing saxophones. The piece began a little sloppier than they might have liked, but when drummer Jack Perry kicked in, the groove finally settled in the pocket and the trio found their rhythm.
Drums flexed as their players pounded away. Bassists plucked away with quick, spidery hands. Pianist after pianist brought their own unique approach to the instrument. Some stood stiff and appeared to touch each key with great selectiveness. Others were far more animated, bobbing their heads and stomping along to the music. Saxophonists hopped and swung their instruments about — the woodwinds sparkling in the stage lights.
Flutist Benjamin Lee brought a unique sound to the Tuesday Combo’s set. His playing brought a fluttering airiness to Joe Henderson’s “The Kicker.” As the group moved into “Nightfall,” a slow, somber piano set the mood as the drums were played using brushes, giving the piece a slow, relaxed feel teetering on the backside of the beat.
At some point during the night, things hit a bit of a lull. All that changed when the Wednesday Combo — listed as “The Advanced Jazz Combo” — hit the stage with a bang.
Their first selection, Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” aggressively ushered in their set. Saxophonist Bryce St. Peter channeled all the fire and passion of jazz. Not only did he display fluent mastery of his instrument, his intense presence and commanding posture added a layer of deliberateness to every single piece. His movements were bursting with agency, and it looked as if the stage would have barely contained him had he really laid it all out.
The group’s last piece was an interpretation of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” a strange piece in its own right for its unique rhythmic structure. The Wednesday Group put an interesting spin on the intro, invoking thoughts of an object spinning out of control or falling apart as discorded mayhem masked the hidden structure.
As good as the music was, what really stood out was the atmosphere and the interactions between people. The admiration and appreciation directed toward the stage from the crowd filled the room. Each solo was greeted by clapping and shouts of approval. At the conclusion of each song, the audience responded with more of the same.
On stage, there was tangible closeness among the musicians of every group. They nodded to one another and gazed to the crowd with smiles on their faces as their bandmates showcased their artistry. The way they could read one another, and their ability to cue each other in amidst the improvisation was a testament to the bonds these musicians form from hours and years of playing together.