The Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra at Dazzle Jazz Club – by Robin McNeil
Monday evening, November 10, the Dazzle Jazz Club on Lincoln Street in Denver, hosted the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra (MJO). In turn, the MJO hosted the Rocky Mountain High School Jazz Band. As most of you know, Rocky Mountain High School is in Fort Collins. The jazz band is directed by Kenyon Scheurman, and I will say at the outset that this jazz band is superb.
Surprisingly, it seems necessary to define exactly what jazz is. There are many people who love jazz as an audience member, but they have many misconceptions about it. For example, I have had many tell me that they did not believe that jazz musicians had to practice as much as classical musicians because jazz musicians simply sat down with their instrument and “did their thing.” In addition, there are many people who still believe that some jazz musicians don’t know how to read music because they don’t need to know, they just “play from their heart.” I have asked these people, and apparently, my question stumped them, how they can do all of this without a knowledge of music.
Understand that quite often how jazz is defined depends upon the person that you ask, but most are in agreement that jazz is a true art form (and they are absolutely correct) especially when compared to Rap and much of the popular music today. The reason that jazz is an art form is because it has the same elements as serious music, plus, it requires the most difficult task of any musician, and that is improvisation. You must consider improvisation as Number 8 of the items below. Improvisation used to be an acquired skill, especially in the early eras or periods of music. Claude Debussy, the Impressionist period composer, studied improvisation with organist and composer César Franck. It is still required of organists because they often have to contend, for example, with surprisingly long communion services or the passing of the collection plate. But over a period of time, many superb musicians have lost the ability to improvise at the same level as jazz musicians. It is improvisation that establishes a jazz musician’s reputation because it is such a complex procedure, and it encompasses all the elements of music itself. Those elements are:
- Rhythm (beat, meter, tempo, syncopation)
- Dynamics (forte, piano, etc.)
- Melody (pitch, theme, conjunct, disjunct)
- Harmony (chord, progression, consonance, dissonance)
- Tone color (range, register, instrumentation)
- Texture (monophonic, homophonic, polyphonic, imitation, counterpoint
- Form (binary, ternary, etc., through composed)
Monday evening, the Rocky Mountain High School was first on the program. After they performed, the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra took the stage. As I sat in the audience listening to the Rocky Mountain High School Jazz Band, I was truly struck by their ability on their instruments, their ability at improvisation, and their ability to follow each other’s riffs – i.e., periods of improvisation. It was marvelous to hear young musicians as talented as these were. It is a clear indication of their dedication to their instrument and to jazz, but it is also a tribute to Kenyon Scheurman’s ability as a teacher and jazz band director. It is clear that he has taught these students an excellent concept of jazz as an art. My favorite tune that they played Monday evening is a favorite of many: As Time Goes By (remember the movie Casablanca?) Rachel Morley sang the vocals, and she was absolutely magnificent. Sentimental, lyrical, and, in addition, it was clear that she was enjoying performing. This group also did a piece, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be which is an Ellington tune that was arranged by Rich Sigler. Mario Sosa was perfect on tenor sax, and the way the musicians in this band surrounded him with sound, gave him tremendous support. The RMHS Jazz Band also did a work called Chicken Scratch, by Kris Berg, which brought forth the ability of bass player Adriana Huebner. But I need to make a point for all you readers. Because I am not mentioning all of the musicians in this article, don’t assume that they all don’t deserve some kind of special mention: they do. And I emphasize that. Tyler Kind was sensational on trumpet, as was Grace Feist and Rachel Knaff. Rica Ramirez, baritone sax, Mariah Johnson, guitar, Julian Ferrara, drums: the students were all excellent in a jazz band that was excellent. They excelled because it was clear they had a superb understanding of music and how music works, and every one of them could improvise.
After a short intermission the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra performed their set of six pieces.
I don’t believe there is anyone in Denver who does not know the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra. If you don’t, you simply must go hear them. There are 20 members of this jazz band, and all of them have vast experience, and all of them are such virtuosos in jazz that it is hard to imagine most of them have day jobs, therefore, they don’t spend their entire life practicing. That is astonishing considering the demonstration of their ability. It is clear when they play that jazz gives them great joy, and it is clear that they feel extremely comfortable in front of an audience. As a matter of fact, at some point or another, they all take part in commenting (as in shout) on what Jim Mick has just told the audience about the music. That certainly results in a humorous exhibition of nimble wits and savage répartie.
The first work of their set was entitled Lady Chatterley’s Mother, and, as Jim Mick explained, no one is quite sure where Al Cohn, the composer, got the title. In addition, snippets of the main theme sounded like it was a variation on the Christmas tune Sleigh Ride. It featured Kevin Buchanan on trombone, Dan Johnson, trumpet, and Kyle Etges on baritone sax. All three of these musicians are certainly where they should be: on stage and in a jazz band, as they are exceptional. But, I must say, that I was astounded at the ability of Kyle Etges. He not only has remarkable facility on a baritone saxophone that is truly virtuosic, but he has the ability to make extreme changes in the sound of his instrument: he can make his baritone sax sound like a cello.
Serena Eads, their marvelous guitarist, Alan Aluisi, drums, and Zack Cassell, saxophone, were featured in the following tune, Burn It Forward, by Michael Pagan. As Jim Mick pointed out before they began to play, it is still, regretfully, rare to have a woman in a jazz band. But that is certainly where Serena Eads belongs – either there, or teaching on a university faculty. It is my hope that all of the members of the Rocky Mountain High School Jazz Band are aware of the fact that Serena Eads has a Masters of Music in Jazz Performance and Pedagogy from the University of Colorado at Boulder. The point is: go ahead and get a degree in music even if you want to be a jazz musician. After all, the late, great Oscar Peterson had a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Piano from the Toronto Conservatory.
In listening to the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra perform their set, I came to the rapid conclusion that I could not pick a favorite because everything was so incredibly well done. Kang Ding Love Song (based on a Chinese love song) was mellow and rich, thanks to Gary Dempsey, piano, and Zack Cassell on saxophone. I have never heard this work performed before, but I am quite sure that I heard a three voice fughetta. They also performed Someday My Prince Will Come which featured Jason Malmberg playing one of the most difficult string bass parts that I’ve heard from a jazz band for quite a while.
Following their six piece set, the MJO was joined by the Rocky Mountain High School, and they performed a work entitled Glenn’s Den. Virtually everyone in the RMHS Jazz Band was able to play at least two riffs, and it surely displayed the skill that these young students have. It was also very heartening to see the pleasure and the joy that the MJO got out of performing with the students.
You readers must understand that the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra considers it one of their major responsibilities to teach young musicians all about jazz. In so doing, they expose the students to performance and that gives an invaluable lesson to the students, not only in the worth of jazz, but in the development of the basic building blocks of the art form. It is also of great assistance to them in developing their own sound and style, and it also demonstrates that they can be an individual in this art form.
Both the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra and the Dazzle Jazz Club deserve much credit and encouragement for their promotion of jazz to young jazz musicians. All of you readers must hear these concerts. You will be truly surprised.