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Back Roads Beat

The Inaugural Nebraska Jazz Festival

By Published: April 4, 2006
That doesn't mean lax standards in Cornhusker land - the guest players played a musical tug-of-war with one group of students when assessing their performance of "Blue Monk." Grasmick said they were rushing at one point and needed to be laid back because "this is the first thing people hear in the tune (and) it sets the tone for the whole thing." Sharp, on the other hand, felt the drummer was too laid back with a rhythm that - almost imperceptibly - lagged behind the ensemble.

"Sometimes that thousandth of a second is just enough," he said.

Few of the students interviewed said they are likely to pursue jazz - or music - as a career. Many showed solid knowledge about styles of well-known players on their instrument of choice, but musical tastes unsurprisingly ran toward rock and rap rather than swing (or honky-tonk).

"I'm not much of a jazz player," said Ryan Beach, 17, a senior at Lincoln High School, told Haist during a workshop for trumpet players. "I can play the notes on the page, but it's just not my thing."

Confronting and overcoming weaknesses is crucial as a musician, Haist responded, adding he isn't the most talented player in the area, but makes a living and gets hired ahead of better performers because of his versatility.

"Nowadays it's hard to specialize and be successful as a trumpet player," he said. "There are a lot of good trumpet players in this area, probably more than many for this size, but because they lack versatility they're not likely to get called."

The best ten players in Lincoln obviously aren't on the same level as the best ten in New York City, but Grasmick said some of the local talent could certainly succeed there.

"There's some (such as) Dean who could go anywhere and work," he said.

Little Audience On The Prairie

It's hard to call any show in a mostly empty auditorium a rousing success.

Musicians say it doesn't affect them, yet they also claim to feed off the energy of a roaring audience. The nine-member band at Friday night's performance had all the parts properly assembled and there were some notable moments, but little to elevate it above the ordinary.

The four-horns-up-front assembly ensured aggressive lead voicings for songs needing them, ranging from the opening "Caravan" to Maceo Parker's "The Chicken" at the conclusion. Solos were evenly divided among subgroups during songs and usually long enough to allow development, executed with varying degrees of originality. Emcee Ed Love, director of the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra, gave even the most inexperienced listeners a road map to follow by introducing the songs, their themes and featured soloists beforehand. It's something worth doing more often, despite the risk of seeming condescending to those familiar with the material.

The best performance of the evening might have been Love's original "Little Wieners," a dense, free-blowing burner that stood out from most of the evening's more predictable fare. The difference was notable among players like pianist Tom Harvill - who kept his hands close, notes low and volume levels even all evening - applying those techniques in rapid bursts of next-level energy. Drummer Greg Ahl also took extra advantage of the looser setting, shifting and adjusting from contemporary straight-ahead to complex fusion-like patterns throughout.

Hearing bassist Andy Hall's startlingly sharp and aggressive vocals on "I Love Being Here With You This Evening" was also a highlight, since it was almost a mirror image of his scholarly acoustic playing. Ahl and Gulizia delivered one of the more energetic passages during Sharp's "Precipice" as Ahl's drums cut a low rumble under Gulizia's articulations, focusing on specific instruments rather than all at once, followed by the players shifting roles.

But much of the performance failed to make a lasting impression. Guitarist Peter Bouffard was more notable for his effects-drenched tone than phrasing, sounding like a calliope synth at times and a funk organ at others. Sharp was a pro on alto with a smooth tone tending toward the higher registers, but seemed to stay in conservative territory with solos that seemed to evolve from an idea or two rather than progressing through a range of them. Earlie Braggs proved a solid mid-range vocalist during "Georgia On My Mind" and the glissading notes of his trombone hinted at strong ability that made one anticipate something exceptional, but ultimately the excitement didn't materilize.

Some of the mood may have been due to the middling response from the crowd, which amounted to little in a mostly empty auditorium. Love, at the end of the 90-minute show, said the best of the festival was still to come.

"We hope to see you tomorrow night," he said. "It will be much louder from tonight."

Well, yes and no.

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