The Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra Gets "Thrasched"

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The thirty-third annual Albuquerque Jazz Festival ended its two-day run on February 21, 2009. The event is devoted mainly to performances by high school and middle school bands, while the grand finale features the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra with invited guests, this year the saxophone quartet Thrascher (Randy Hamm, soprano; Tim Ishii, alto; Edward Petersen, tenor; Glenn Kostur, baritone). The concert was held at the African American Performing Arts Center auditorium whose acoustics are among the best in the area.

Betty and I arrived ahead of time and took our customary back-row seats, ready to enjoy the evening. Backstage, I learned that music director Bobby Shew

Bobby Shew
Bobby Shew
would not be there; another gig had called him out of town. The orchestra was supervised in his stead by trombonist John Sanks. The AJO was onstage first, performing a quartet of songs—"Little Gus," "My One and Only Love," "Just You, Just Me" and "Song for Bilbao." While nothing was amiss, we noticed that the band seemed uninspired, perhaps owing to Shew's absence. There were some respectable solos by Sanks and fellow trombonists Ed Ulman and newcomer Christian Pidcock (on valve trombone), saxophonists Lee Taylor and Aaron Lovato, pianist Chris Ishee and trumpeter Kent Erickson, but the over-all feeling was one of off-handedness, as though waiting for Thrascher to come onstage. That moment soon arrived, and here we must pause to accentuate the positive. Thrascher is comprised of top-drawer musicians who are both intuitive and resourceful, and their charts are on the whole sharp and pleasing.

Which leads us to the other side of the coin. Although Thrascher is admirable as a unit, its separate members were somewhere removed from that, especially when soloing. Perhaps it's not their failing, and perhaps they are playing the music they map out in their heads, but too often improvisations sounded overwrought and mannered in the extreme. Petersen is especially guilty of that transgression, constantly testing the limits of his horn (and our patience), but there were times when everyone lent his voice to the strident chorus. To further becloud matters, the second half of the concert was devoted exclusively to Thrascher with the AJO in a backup role. As we had expected more, the mood when the concert ended was one of displeasure rather than elation. Nevertheless, we'll be back next year...

On the Horizon . . .

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