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Bob Brookmeyer Celebration at New England Conservatory

Bob Brookmeyer Celebration at New England Conservatory
Steve Provizer By

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The young composers Brookmeyer mentored have thoroughly assimilated the techniques that he pioneered. As the evening showed, they are keeping the bar high; continuing to move big band music ahead.
NEC Jazz Orchestra
Jordan Hall
Bob Brookmeyer Celebration
Boston, MA
March 1, 2018

All of the composer-arrangers featured at the Bob Brookmeyer Celebration concert had been mentored, to some degree or other, by Bob Brookmeyer. Listening to what each of his former students said during the program and to the music itself, his great contribution was to make it seem as though anything is possible-and permissible-in the big band context.

Brookmeyer's career began in the late 1940's, when he played piano in the big bands of Tex Beneke and Ray McKinley. In the early 1950's, he went to the Claude Thornhill big band and began to focus solely on valve trombone. The Thornhill and McKinley bands were important in that they hired arrangers interested in forging a big band sound that was more modern than that of Goodman, the Dorseys and Glenn Miller. These include Eddie Sauter, Bill Finnegan, Thornhill, Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan, the latter two instrumental in crafting the smaller ensemble sound of Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool."

During the next couple of decades, Brookmeyer continued to write for big bands, although most of his recording was done as a trombone player in quartets or quintets. In 1965, he began a long association with the adventurous Thad Jones Mel Lewis Big Band, which performed weekly at the Village Vanguard. Then, in the early 1980's, he moved to Europe and became a frequent contributor to big band activity there, both as arranger-composer and as trombone soloist.

In terms of the duration of their careers, their influence and quality of their writing, Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer are at the top of the heap. And while Evans was only a competent pianist, Brookmeyer was also a soloist of the highest caliber. I believe he is the preeminent valve trombonist in jazz history.

This is the pedigree that Brookmeyer brought when he came to the New England Conservatory (NEC) in 1997. The quality of his work was reflected in that of his mentees, who in this concert utilized a vast arsenal of techniques to paint personal, unique portraits in the big band format. The work was well-rendered by the student jazz ensemble. There may be areas in which these musicians are not quite at the highest professional level, but they could fill the chairs of almost any big band in the country.

The first piece, "Take Back the Country" was written and conducted by the accomplished Ken Schaphorst, Chair of the NEC's Jazz Studies Department, who leads the student ensemble. Schaphorst said he wrote the piece for Brookmeyer, with Brookmeyer's outspoken attitude toward American politics in mind. There was nothing programmatic about the piece, as far as I could hear-no apposite lyrics or musical allusions to anything specifically political. The piece was largely up-tempo, using a lot of lush voicings for the 15 piece ensemble. There was some meter shifting, but the harmony was not particularly challenging, serving well for student solos on trombone and baritone sax. The presence of so many baritone sax-trombone soloist pairings during the course of the evening was an homage to the long association that Brookmeyer had with Gerry Mulligan.

I have to mention an ongoing problem here with the sound, one that was bothersome throughout the concert; namely, a lack of amplification for the soloists. Soloists stepped up to a mic, so the opportunity was there to make certain they were audible, but most of the time, that was not so. There was much background writing for the large ensemble and unless that happened to be at a low volume level, the soloists were often buried. I hope the NEC takes note and takes steps to correct this. Apart from this, the sound of the full ensemble in the hall was terrific.

The next composition was "Finality," which was written and conducted by Nick Urie. Laila Smith performed well as vocalist from a text written by poet Charles Bukowsky (Smith was seated at a mic and was properly amplified) Urie managed the relationship between the ensemble and voice well. He rendered the spirit of the text-about "Mad Ezra"-in an appropriate, minor mode-dominated musical environment. In fact, there was a relationship between the composition and the words that led to an almost soundtrack-like feeling. The ending section provoked in me the feeling that I was being taken for a ride in a really odd caravan. The last chord was dissonant enough that I felt as though the caravan had fallen through a crack in the desert floor. Jesse Beckett-Herbert should be noted for his excellent tenor sax work here and in other compositions.

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