New School Jazz Celebrates 20 Years With Concert
After Hall and Bernstein's duo came the highlight of this all too brief evening in the form of the so-called alumni ensemble made up of all New School graduates. Under the direction of Reggie Workman, the former students comprising this group ranged from 1989 graduate Roy Hargrove and Marcus Strickland, 2001, to Frank LoCrasto, year of 2006. Once lined up on stage, the band fired up Freddie Hubbard's "Open Sesame." Lakecia Benjamin, class of '06, took the first turn, an immensely attractive and greasy alto solo. Behind the soloists, the alumni band was quick to adapt to each player, making rapid changes to alter the mood as necessary, once even briefly employing a salsa clave. These folks had been taught to function as one corporeal entity under the guidance of Professor Reggie Workman. This New School alumnus' ability to live and breathe as a group memberand to step out and speak for the group as an individual soloist informed the playing of all these jazz initiates. To end the solos section, this nimble body of players improvised a vamp behind the solo flight of tenor saxophonist, John Ellis, class of 1999. Ellis, who has brought impeccable timing and taste to another well-honed body of musiciansthe early 2000's Charlie Hunter bandlater shared the remarkable little entre nous that the alumnus band had learned the personnel of the group and the selection for the evening just a few brief hours before performance.
A particularly intimate duo reading Hoagy Carmichael's "The Very Nearness of You" between Fred Hersch and Jane Ira Bloom followed the Alumni band, and after them came the crowd favorite, a 6/8 time, Chicago blues-inflected "Dr. Feelgood, starring newcomer and New School alum Vickie Natae backed up by a couple of not-so- newcomers: Bernard Purdie and Junior Mance. The level of intimacy between Natae, Mance, bassist Kiyoshi Matsuyama, and what seemed an immensely pleased Purdie again signaled the success of the mentoring system that New School employs to give its students a leg up in the ever-so-competitive jazz world. Ms. Natae, alongside Lakecia Benjamin, starred at the Blue Note not long after this performance. Finally, past, present, and future came together in the so-called Anniversary All-Stars, which brought to the stage Jimmy Heath, Benny Powell, Barry Harris, Charlie Persip, and introduced to the audience the animated Maeve Royce on bass, alumni 2007, now working with Rachel Z.
With such an embarrassment of riches, what lent coherence to the evening was the spectacle of watching the new kids work it out with the veterans; the audience collectively held its breath whenever a new jam began. The veterans' very orbit and presence would have overwhelmed even the most initiated, but it seemed veteran and novice alike had attained a level of intimacy unknown to newcomers outside of this very special circle provided by the New School jazz department. Even afterwards, at the reception following the performance, these initiates and veterans mingled together sociallysometimes nervously, but always genially. This intimacy engendered by the mentoring process and close contact between vets and initiates lent a sort of confidence to the newcomers. Moments like when the delightfully nimble-fingered pianist Frank LoCrasto played a sprightly intro to bring in the Alumni All-Stars on "Open Sesame," or when Ms. Royce got a hold of the beat behind and even began pushing the Anniversary All-Stars, or when John Ellis and Lakecia Benjamin soared above the alumni band anchored by Workman provided the highlights of the evening.
Certainly, these moments were something akin to watching a tightrope act, but the real pleasure came in the sigh of relief that accompanied everybody's safe delivery. There was no schadenfreude to be had this evening. Certainly, the selections tended towards the conservative; one wonders, for instance, what all Mr. Matsuyama was capable of with that deep resonance he milked out of that gorgeously tricked-out bass. But the veteran's gaze produced a level of professionalism that far outweighed any limits an institutional setting might impose on individual freedom. Indeed, the evening was above all about communityNew School's jazz department houses a core of dedicated musicians who lovingly work together to ensure the security and perpetuity of jazz's future. Jazz's next generation stands on its own sure feet atop the shoulders of present giants.