Alex Chilowicz at William Paterson University

David A. Orthmann By

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Alex Chilowicz
William Paterson University
Wayne, NJ
December 9, 2009

Saxophonist Alex Chilowicz is a 22-year-old senior in the Jazz Studies program at William Paterson University. To fulfill an honors thesis requirement, Chilowicz embarked on an unusually ambitious project—the performance of Eddie Sauter's Focus. A seven-part composition for string orchestra and improvised tenor saxophone, Focus was one of the first and most successful attempts at fusing jazz and classical music. Sauter wrote it at the request of the iconic tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. Verve released a recording under Getz's name in 1961 and reissued on compact disc in 1997.

In his high school years, Chilowicz listened to and dreamed of playing Focus. Throughout his college career, he worked to make the dream a reality by developing a variety of skills, all of which bode well for his survival in the brutally competitive, resource-challenged performing arts landscape in the 21st century. He obtained Sauter's original score from the composer's collection in the Yale University Library. In the words of Dr. David Demsey, professor of music and Chilowicz's advisor at Yale, it was "a feat of great persuasion." When Chilowicz discovered that some of the sheet music was illegible, he returned to Getz's recording and painstakingly transcribed the unreadable parts. His reconstruction was performed in October by the Manhattan School of Music's Jazz Philharmonic orchestra and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano. In order to hire some of the same players for the WPU recital, Chilowicz applied for and received a $2,000 grant from the university's Student Undergraduate Research Program.

Sauter's written score poses a number of challenges for the soloist. There aren't familiar song forms or routine sets of chord changes to blow over. The suite doesn't lend itself to long, exhausting statements fueled by pet licks or phrases. Patience and tact are essential. Each one of the seven relatively brief parts can stand on its own without the saxophone, so an acute sensitivity to what the strings are playing at all times is imperative. The soloist has to adapt quickly to shifting themes and devise melodies on the spot without forcing them on the material.

The December concert opened with conductor Richard DeRosa's arrangement of the standard "Just Friends," Chilowicz's arrangement of the bossa nova "Theme from Black Orpheus," and DeRosa's arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Solitude," all of which included the orchestra. Chilowicz coaxed a rich and flexible tone from his instrument (soprano was his horn of choice on "Solitude"), handled the melodies in a relaxed and assured manner, and improvised in ways that invariably served the music as a whole. "Just Friends" included solos by guest bassist Steve LaSpina and a WPU student, pianist Billy Test. "Black Orpheus" featured an improvisation by guest guitarist Paul Meyers.

Throughout all seven parts of Focus, Chilowicz was the antithesis of the hard-blowing, verbose tenor saxophone hero. He carefully positioned himself inside of the music's parameters and stayed in touch with the ensemble. Making sounds ranging from soft, alluring whispers to tart honks, his playing was as much about texture as the creation of melodic lines. Changes in dynamics and variations in phrasing never came off as abrupt or contrived. Sometimes Chilowicz took charge and blew over the strings; in other instances, he was guided by them or blended in with them. He readily found melodies on his own and occasionally quoted or parodied what was going on around him.

Some of the highlights included Chilowicz's contrast of hard, edgy phrases and fluid, song-like lines on "I'm Late, I'm Late." His duet with the brushwork of drummer Arthur Vint (another WPU student to keep an eye on) included probing melodies that drew from a theme previously played by the ensemble. During "Her," Chilowicz's musings stayed under the strings for a brief period before he emerged with long, distinctly lyrical lines. His "Pan" improvisation included low, twisting triplet figures, sets of leaping two- and three-note sallies, and keening melodies that eventually yielded to the orchestra.

The concert concluded with DeRosa's arrangement of the warhorse "Cherokee." Accompanied by the ensemble, Test's solo displayed some clever bebop phrasing and vigorous two-handed flourishes. Vint's brisk, technically adroit trips around the drum set were tailored to the strings' stop time. Chilowicz's ideas came in bunches and included a few brief Charlie Parker quotes. He then laid back a bit and blended in with the strings as they played a portion of Ray Noble's melody. Like the rest of the performance, Chilowicz's willingness to cooperate with the ensemble rather than imposing his will on the music made for something more then a savvy end to his college career—it pointed to a very promising future.


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