UCI Jazz Orchestra Reborn

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Jazz Concert

 

Last March I attended the UCI Jazz Orchestra concert, and I was not impressed to say the least.

Last March I attended the UCI Jazz Orchestra concert, and I was not impressed to say the least.

As I took my seat for the fall performance, I admittedly had low expectations. Last Wednesday, however, was not the same jazz ensemble that took the stage at Winifred Smith Hall eight months ago. While far from perfect, the UCI Jazz Orchestra has come a long way in their mastery of refined jazz literacy and execution.

Under the direction of Grammy-nominated trumpeter Dr. Bobby Rodriguez, the ensemble’s growth was evidenced by their tighter articulation, stylistic competency and cognizance of dynamics.

“Nobody can deny when you’re connected to your soul through your instrument,” said Rodriguez.  That sentiment was reflected in the musicians’ contorted, jazzy facial expressions and arching, passionate body language.

Their bluesy lead, “Hip-Shakin’,” was a deceptively weak introduction to an otherwise solid performance. Sloppily-enunciated hits and an ambiguous group section precluded a vibrant, 88-keyed soulful exploration by soloist Adrian Foy. With his right hand racing across the piano’s higher register and his left spelling out chord changes, Foy set the improvisational bar high for his bandmates.

Rodriguez’s own composition, an ode to his daughter entitled “Quiet and Gentle,” followed next. The cha-cha tune was inflamed by a sultry guitar solo by Daniel Martz. Martz pleasantly cascaded up and down his frets while artfully landing on chord tones, allowing the notes to waver and resonate on the most ideal tones; sometimes one perfect note says as much as a hundred fast ones.

The strong dynamic leadership coming from the trumpets peaked at higher volumes, but diminished some of the section’s strong cohesiveness at quieter points. The drums wasted opportunities for stylistic exploration by sticking to the same two-and-four rhythmic pattern that may have otherwise offered layers of depth and authenticity to the piece. A recurring problem throughout “Quiet and Gentle” — and the remainder of the night — was the different volumes each section played at. Generally, the brass overpowered the saxes, and the rhythm section hovered around one lukewarm dynamic.

The group finally hit their stride with their third piece, “All Right.” Austin Quach’s laid-back swing feel ushered in a full, warm ensemble sound that was well-balanced between each section and perfectly in-tune. Articulation was powerful and uniform across the stage, and each musician cut off as one rather than many. As the piece transitioned into a medium swing, Quach switched from brushes to sticks, one hand at a time, without audibly disrupting the flow of his rhythms. He played a short fill before every hit, which made it easier for the band to play together as one.

“On My Way” featured a slew of well-executed, triplet-based lines. The volume difference once again plagued the ensemble a bit as the trumpets overpowered the saxophones. Dr. Rodriguez took the first solo and turned red as his horn pointed high above his head while bellowing out lovely, fast lamentations up and down his trumpet’s register, and despite his speed and skill, he still utilizes space to keep it engaging and unpredictable.

Alto saxist Rebecca Anne Wilder followed Rodriguez’s lead with a rhythmically-varied and confident solo. Blasting background voices buried her sound at times, but it was a valiant display from Wilder nonetheless as she skillfully navigated chord changes and told a story through her instrument. Dylan Juhan’s hands contorted along the frets of his upright bass like spiders, and his body elongated and contracted with the intensity and fantastic note choices coming from his amp. The song’s final chord rang through the hall after each voice cut off in near unison, with only the lead trumpet hanging on to a screaming high note a microsecond longer in typical big band fashion.

“I felt it went really well. I thought everybody really played their hearts out, and it was kind of difficult because the whole holiday before and planning rehearsals with everybody being out of town, but I think we really just have a solid group of musicians this year, so it wasn’t an issue,” said Wilder.

With enough time and rehearsal, any group can eventually sound good. It’s a testament to the young musicians’ skill that they were able to execute an applause-worthy performance under such strained circumstances.

The night ended on a strong note (pun intended), and I found myself caught off guard by the display I had just witnessed. I thoroughly expected to walk out the doors of Winifred Smith with a notebook full of criticisms and critiques, but instead I experienced what last year lacked — fire, flare, soul…  jazz.

Undeniably, there’s room for improvement, but this group has come a long way since last year. Last year, I was appalled by what I heard, but now I’m hopeful and excited to see how far the UCI Jazz Orchestra can go. If they keep improving at this rate, they’re on their way to becoming a premier jazz ensemble.

 

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