Jazz Under the Stars

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As mentioned before in this column, the 28th annual Jazz Under the Stars series is under way here in Albuquerque. I’ve attended two of the open-air concerts at the Albuquerque Museum, on opening night, June 5, to see and hear the splendid Albuquerque Jazz Orchesta and four other groups (three of which showcased musicians of high-school age or younger), and again on June 26 when the great (and we don’t use the word lightly) trombonist Bill Watrous was the headliner. Bill was invited by Ed Ulman, executive director of the New Mexico Jazz Workshop, who was so inspired by Watrous’s visit twenty years ago to his high-school class in Fort Vancouver, Washington, that he decided to become a Jazz trombonist and educator, both of which goals he has achieved.

On Friday, the day before the concert, Watrous presented a clinic at the Albuquerque Academy for members of the NMJW’s Summer Intensive Jazz program big band, which in turn opened the concert on Saturday evening. The clinic not only gave Watrous a chance to interact with the young players, it also enabled him to meet the rhythm section with whom he would be sharing the stage the following night — pianist Stu MacAskie, bassist Milo Jaramillo and drummer John Trentacosta. While the foursome had almost no time to rehearse (Bill handed them some scores to study before the gig), one would never have guessed that from the seamless way in which they blended during the concert. Watrous was duly impressed, praising each of them more than once for his awareness and adaptability, approval that was in no way insincere or misplaced. Watrous also gave each of his colleagues ample room to blow, so much so that at one point my wife Betty turned to me and whispered, referring to Watrous, “He’s not playing enough.” She wanted him to take every solo — not a bad idea when one solos as persuasively as he does, but one that Watrous would never entertain.

The concert was almost derailed before it began, as rain, lightning and high winds encircled the Albuquerque area, but aside from the occasional raindrop kept their distance throughout the evening. First up was the Summer Intensive All-Stars ensemble, comprised mainly of high-school students with a few from middle schools. The instrumentation wasn’t exactly conventional — three trumpets, two trombones, five alto saxophones, one tenor sax and rhythm — but the youngsters acquitted themselves well on numbers that included Richard Carpenter’s “Walkin’,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “So Danco” samba and Benny Golson‘s funky “Killer Joe.” Watrous then played two sets, opening the first with “I Thought About You,” gently caressing “As Time Goes By” and Jobim’s “Corcovado,” sprinting through “Beautiful Love” and closing with another of Jobim’s lyrical melodies, “No More Blues,” taken at a rapid-fire tempo. After the break, the quartet returned with Betty Comden / Adolph Green’s “Just in Time,” after which Watrous unveiled a surprisingly proficient and charming singing voice on “My Buddy,” a song he said he first sang at a memorial service for a musician friend, Buddy Jones. A third tune by Jobim, the ballad “O Grande Amor,” was next up before the quartet rang down the curtain (figuratively speaking) with a scorching version of the “C-Jam Blues.”

The earlier concert, on June 5, was blessed with typically beautiful Albuquerque weather but the three-hour event had to overcome another large yet well-meant obstacle — trying to give its audience not too little Jazz but too much. The AJO, far and away the best ensemble on the premises, was last on the program, taking the stage about fifteen minutes behind schedule, and was forced to shorten its program to meet the time constraints. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience (some of whom had headed for the exits even before the AJO came onstage), but I’d have been quite happy to hear more of that outstanding ensemble and less of the Middle School Honors Jazz Band, the High School Jazz Combo, the New Mexico Jazz Workshop Adult Band and the High School Honors Big Band, all of whom preceded the AJO onstage. Of course, it was good to have them there, and they were obviously thrilled to be playing before such a large and appreciative audience, but more than two hours of their earnest but often less than polished music-making was a pinch more than necessary. By the time the AJO had its turn at bat the ball game was almost over.

Nevertheless, Albuquerque’s premier big band put on its game face and swung from the heels, sailing through a delightful set that included two numbers by Gordon Goodwin (“Count Bubba,” “There’s the Rub”), Golson’s poignant “I Remember Clifford” (featuring trumpeter Bruce Dalby), Sammy Nestico’s loping “Hay Burner,” Tom Kubis’s saucy “Samba Dees Godda Do It,” the Basie / Joe Williams classic “All Right, Okay, You Win,” Pat Metheny’s lovely “Always and Forever” and Ulman’s clever send-up of “Georgia Brown” entitled “Dig That Sweet Clifford Brown.” The AJO, comprised mostly of Jazz educators, is strong in every section and boasts a number of engaging soloists including trombonist Ulman, trumpeter Brad Dubbs and tenor saxophonist Lee Taylor. The rhythm section is firmly anchored by bassist John Blackburn and drummer Andy Poling. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the AJO’s proficiency, as there is a wealth of musical talent in almost every good-sized city in the country, and Albuquerque has a population of more than half a million. Not only is the orchestra a good one, but the indefatigable Ulman is doing his utmost to promote Jazz in the high schools and middle schools through the Jazz Workshop‘s various programs, which bodes well for the future.

The Centrum Bud Shank Workshop
In closing, a word or two about the annual Centrum Bud Shank Jazz Workshop, to be held July 25-August 1 in Port Townsend, WA. The Workshop, which has been offered each year for more than twenty, provides a week of intensive study and interaction with internationally renowned Jazz artists including artistic director / alto saxophone legend Bud Shank. Participants come from across the U.S. as well as from Canada, Europe and the Far East. And it’s no wonder. Here are some of the world-class musicians who’ll be serving as instructors: George Cables, Marc Seales and Bill Mays, piano; Pete Christlieb, tenor sax; John Clayton and Chuck Deardorf, bass; Ron Escheté, guitar; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Nancy King, vocals; Joe LaBarbera and Gary Hobbs, drums; Bill Ramsay and Gary Smulyan, baritone sax; Kim Richmond, alto sax; Jiggs Whigham, trombone; and last but not least, the great Bob Florence, arranging. If you can’t learn from those teachers, you’d best think about pursuing some other line of work.

And that’s it for now. Until next time, keep swingin’!

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