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Sound Around Town

by
LABAN CARRICK HILL

Four Days

in the life of UVM’s budding Jazz Studies Program, where the teachers can swing with the best and the students learn to take the musical chances all hep cats must, secure in the knowledge that “everybody appreciates a sincere error.”

Monday

One. Two. One. Snap. Two. Snap. Three. Snap. Then a pause, no longer than a beat, but the silence seems to stretch, the absence of sound amplifying the anticipation. The music erupts with a suddenness that suggests a record needle set down mid-song. At once, the trumpet blares, the sax hums, the bass thumps, the piano swings, the fiddle swells, and the drums go boom boom cha boom boom cha.

The late October light is all but gone outside and there’s a chill in the air. Inside the Southwick Building, UVM’s Jazz Bop Combo is laying out a sweet rendition of Stan Getz’s “Early Autumn.” As the musicians concentrate on hitting their cues, they stand in a circle, facing each other. The sweeping curve of the grand piano makes up one entire side. The pianist Peter Krag, a freshman, turns his head to look at the other members of the combo. Junior Ezra Lipp, barefoot with a scruffy, thrift store style, sits behind a drum kit. Next to him, junior Tim Wilson blows a hot trumpet. Freshman Justin Katz sways beside him as he plays tenor sax, while senior Heather Kahill bows her violin. Finally, between Kahill and Krag, graduate student Mike Burris plucks deep bass strings in an easy rhythm.

As the tune comes to an end, Patricia Julien, assistant professor of music and faculty advisor to the Bop Combo, looks up from her notes. Julien came to UVM’s Music Department last year and has become a key part of the new Jazz Studies Program. Before arriving here, the flutist performed at nearly every important jazz and classical venue in North America, from Carnegie Hall to CBGB’s, from The Kennedy Center to the Knitting Factory. In addition to her performance experience, Julien is also a composer, arranger, and has done significant research into harmonic relations. In short, she’s got the chops to make young musicians listen for answers, but she turns the question on them first.

Katz expresses dissatisfaction with his transcription of Getz’s tune. “The background arrangement seems too simple.”

“Sometimes you don’t want to have the backgrounds too interesting,” Julien advises, “because it will detract from the whole piece.” Several other students agree. Katz spins “Autumn Leaves” on the CD player and they all listen, reconsider, and begin anew.

As the group counts down the piece, Julien quietly slips out of the practice room, leaving the combo to work out one of the most important aspects of playing together: communication.

About fifteen minutes before rehearsal’s end, Julien returns and fields more questions. The musicians listen carefully to her advice, seeming to appreciate her demanding, rigorous style. It is clear that Julien expects everyone to be prepared and she assumes that every musician is working toward a professional career, a level of respect that pays off in practice and performance.

Tuesday

It’s late afternoon as students straggle into the Southwick Ballroom, begin to unpack their instruments, and assemble on the three-tier bandstand. Drummer Sean Marchetti lays down a beat while other musicians warm up with scales. Though no one is consciously playing together, there is a surprising unity to the sound of the trombones, saxes, trumpets, piano, bass, and drums.

Alex Stewart, assistant professor of music, strides into the room with a sheath of music tucked under his arm. He directs the UVM Jazz Ensemble and is the driving force behind the establishment of the Jazz Studies Program, which offers music majors a new area of specialization. Structured like the classical music education, Stewart explains, “Students start out taking the same courses as the classical musicians. By their second year they start to do more and more jazz courses and less and less of the traditional harmony.”

In the four years that he has been at UVM, Stewart has worked hard to turn this ensemble into a true jazz big band. He’s progressed from having 18 students (12 of them guitarists) audition for the band his first year to the current line-up of 17 musicians, mostly brass, selected from the 48 students who auditioned. This year, just three guitarists tried out. “Nothing against guitarists,” Stewart says, “but you can’t have a big band with just guitarists.”

Like Julien, Stewart’s experience as a musician and scholar is both extensive and deep. He has toured Europe and North America with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and has appeared at major jazz festivals throughout the world. Before coming to UVM, Stewart was the director of Jazz Studies at Long Island University’s C.W. Post Campus, and is currently at work on a book that draws on his years of big band research.

When Stewart steps up to the podium and opens his music, the band quiets. He wants them to warm up with Thad Jones’s “Little Pixie II.” On his motion they begin, but he stops them after just eight bars. “You need to take it slower.” They begin again. Halfway through the tune, “Little Pixie” picks up energy and the band seems warmed up and in a groove.

Later in the rehearsal, Stewart takes the ensemble through a Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn song, focusing on each segment separately. “You’ve got to land together on the fifth measure,” he tells the trumpets. They nod. Once the section comes in on time, he then addresses their “wah-wahs.” “You’re changing the last wah-wah slightly.” The trumpets repeat this measure several times until Stewart is satisfied.

Credentials like Stewart’s could intimidate, but he seems to have a strong rapport with students. Bassist and jazz major Rob Duguay has found Stewart’s encouragement and advice extremely beneficial. With the professor’s help, Duguay has sat in with Big Joe Burrell’s combo at Halverson’s and started groups of his own, one of which will play later this evening at the Radio Bean Coffeehouse downtown.

Duguay (who, together with Geoff Kim, Sean Marchetti, and Alex Toth comprise the Geoff Kim Quartet), sees such off-campus pursuits as another key part of his jazz education. “The good thing about Burlington is that there is a lot of opportunity to get real experience,” he adds.

Wednesday

The jazz is downtown again tonight, but it’s the teachers’ turn. The sandwich sign in front of Red Square, a hip Church Street bar, announces the sextet Garuda performing at 9 p.m. So, of course, it isn’t until 10 that the musicians begin to set up. James Harvey, the godfather of the Burlington jazz scene, heads up the group which includes many of the faculty of UVM’s Jazz Studies Program.

On tenor sax, Alex Stewart; on piano, Tom Cleary, winner of the 1996 Concerto Competition and a finalist in competitive auditions for the 1998 Kennedy Center Jazz Ambassadors program; on trombone, Andrew Moroz, who has toured nationally and recorded with the Trey Anastasio Band; sax, Bryan McNamara, who has shared the stage with musicians such as Peter Erskine, Mark Minci, and Ernie Watts. The last UVM faculty member in the combo is John Rivers, whom Stewart calls the most skilled bassist in Vermont.

The musicians on stage provide fine illustration of one of the truths behind the rise of jazz at UVM. Key to the progress are many local musicians with national credentials who teach at the University as adjunct faculty. In additions to the members of Garuda, they include musicians like drummer Jeff Salisbury, who is artistic director of Burlington’s Discover Jazz Festival and has played in the Albert King Blues Band and performed with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, as well as many other R&B and jazz artists. Guitarist Joe Capps is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston and performs throughout New England. Trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick is a member of the Trey Anastasio Band and has just released a solo album titled “Fuse.”

Garuda launches into their first set with driving, take-no-prisoners rhythms that run the gambit of jazz genres — from Latin to jazz standards, from bebop to free jazz. Behind every song Harvey’s muscular drumming defies the near-toy-like, cabaret-sized drum kit he plays in the tight quarters on stage.

The group’s music reminds listeners why jazz is the most egalitarian of musical genres. Everyone gets a solo. On a Tom Cleary arrangement of Cole Porter’s “You’re My Thrill,” trombonist Andy Moroz coasts in and out of the written and improvised passages, picking up the melody, toying with it, taking it apart, and then putting it back together like a kid playing with a Legos set. The other musicians respond with their own improvisations that seem to speak like a highly intelligent, beautifully articulated conversation.

Sure it’s a bar, but class is in session as Issac Shearn, a drummer and senior music major, scribbles notes. He is reviewing the performance for his music theory course. He listens critically to the session and focuses primarily on Harvey’s drumming. Though he admires the technical virtuosity, Shearn feels there’s no subtlety in Harvey’s stick work. A discussion of his observation will be the focus of his report.

Thursday

The music building is hopping again tonight with the jazz ensemble’s second practice of the week and two small combos, both overseen by Julien, at work. One of those combos is developing a cover of Bette Midler’s “Twisted.” Their work on the number is a bit scattered because of the possibility of a gig, a March of Dimes Benefit at the Radisson Hotel. Drummer Rachel Bischoff is continually interrupted by her cell phone, which she hasn’t turned off in anticipation of a call confirming the date.

Everyone is excited, on edge, and unable to focus clearly on the music. The conversation sidetracks to the question of whether they have enough material prepared for a real gig. Julien offers several suggestions for songs, including “The Girl from Ipanema,” “All of Me,” and “Night and Day.” Then she tries to redirect their energy back to the rehearsal. But Bischoff’s cell rings. With everyone watching, she answers, speaks briefly, and punches a fist in the air to confirm the good news. The room erupts into nervous chatter.

Eventually, the combo settles down and performs a heartfelt rendition of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” At the end of the song, singer Annakalmia Traver says, “This is exactly how it should go.” It is unclear whether she means the song or the triumph of landing a gig.

Upstairs in the ballroom, the Latin Jazz Combo gathers for its rehearsal. Garuda’s Tom Cleary, who leads the combo, has his teaching hat on tonight. He opens the practice by telling the students, “This piece is a lot like rap. All rappers have a song about how good they are. Almost every salsa band has one, too, and it’s usually named after themselves. In this song, bands will have their signature soneos, a repeated refrain between which soloists really let loose and show the audience what a great band they are.”

Tonight they are working on a song called “Maria Cervantes” by Noco Morales. As they play through the piece, it is clear that the band members are hesitant. Cleary tries to encourage them to play louder and with more confidence. He tells them, “Everybody appreciates a sincere error.”

The evening ends with Cleary praising the combo and offering a little insight into Latin music. “Everything in swing is reversing other kinds of music. Rather than accenting the 1 and 3 beats, you should be accenting the upbeat 2 and 4. This is what puts the Latin swing in it.” The students listen closely. Tonight’s practice builds on experience many of them gained last year traveling to Cuba to study Latin jazz at the source or performing at the Flynn Theatre with Paquito D’Rivera, one of Cuba’s greatest sax players.

Writing, arranging, listening, critiquing, practicing, performing — immersion is what it is about. To deeply study any kind of music is to get the sound running through you. And as Tom Cleary ends his lesson and the Latin Jazz Combo heads out into the night, it seems they walk with a distinct accent on their second steps.


Laban Carrick Hill is the author of Harlem Stomp!
A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance,
to be released by Little, Brown in January 2004