The Inaugural Nebraska Jazz Festival
Seeing nearly as many empty seats Saturday night somehow again came as a disappointment, due to the buildup in expectations that the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra was a stronger draw. Having placed more faith in that than a rather pedestrian song lineup, it was less than a promising start.
Much like Friday, it was an ordinary show with its moments.
A welcome change of pace from typical big band came during the second song, Wayne Shorter's "Mahjong," as Grasmick played a long, buzzing opening on a didgeridoo while Gulizia went through a progression of bird calls, chimes, wood blocks and other noisemakers from his extensive collection. Sharp's arrangement of Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay" was also a winner, with a dominant bass vamp and percussion flourishes setting a progressive fusion pace played mostly by a subset of the ensemble. Tenor saxophonist Paul Haar stood out on that song and others with very quick fingerings and just the right amount of breathing space, mostly assembling thoughtful ideas in a standard range with a few well-chosen explorations of the higher registers. "Duke Ellington's Sound Of Love," a Charles Mingus tune, featured Sharp standing at center stage while leading his arrangement with intense lyrical embellishments, reminiscent of David Sanborn's better moments on Pearls.
But having some of the loudest crowd reaction come during the introduction of a pedestrian "Take The 'A' Train" was disheartening, as was having some potentially memorable moments cut short. Gulizia and Ahl started into what sounded like another worthy collaboration, but cut out well before it really got going - I inadvertently broke audience etiquette by uttering a disparaging remark aloud, thankfully unheard since I was several rows from anyone in my seat toward the back.
The lively and not overly deep "Up For The Count," a Sharp original with a "Route 66" feel, wrapped up the evening. It was loose and the players seemed to enjoy the final flurry, but giving lots of them solo time meant none were able to develop much during it. They got a standing ovation from most of the crowd, but there wasn't much energy behind it - again there was no encore and the audience left without much mingling with the musicians putting away their gear on stage. Visiting musicians didn't linger long in Lincoln either. The first flakes of a storm that dumped two feet of snow in some areas were falling as the concert ended and would continue for the next couple of days.
Meanwhile, Haist has a sunny outlook for the future. The coming year is the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra's 30th anniversary, with guest artists such as Karrin Allyson scheduled. He notes he's been involved with the group since it was just a university band, but over time it has evolved into a professional ensemble that has played in places such as Britain and the Montreux Jazz Festival. Given time, he thinks the festival has similar potential.
"We're really looking long term," he said. "We hoping to turn this into something that will grow and be attended by the better jazz groups in the state."