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Steve LaSpina Quartet at William Paterson University

David A. Orthmann By

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Steve LaSpina Quartet
William Paterson University
Summer Jazz Room
Wayne, NJ
July 23, 2015

At William Paterson University, jazz is taken seriously. Undergraduate and graduate courses are taught by some of the most distinguished names in the business, and the music is presented to the public with care and attention to detail. The past, present, and future are all part of the experience of pursuing a degree or attending a jazz concert at William Paterson. The University's Jazz Studies Program has earned the right to crow over its four decades of educating young jazz musicians, housing the archives of Clark Terry, Thad Jones, and James Williams, as well as its long term commitment to cultivating audiences.

The twenty-second Annual Summer Jazz Room (part of a larger jazz concert series now in its thirty-seventh year), a five-night event, made it easy to appreciate Thursday night's set by bassist (and longtime adjunct faculty member) Steve LaSpina's Quartet. While walking through the plaza in front of the entrance to the Shea Center for the Performing Arts, we were treated to the sounds of a band of talented teenaged students from the University's Summer Jazz Workshop. Admission was reasonably priced. A festival seating arrangement enabled one to choose an acoustically sweet, confortable spot to listen. An in-house crew carefully miked each instrument and balanced the overall sound. Associate Professor/trombonist/composer Dr. Tim Newman introduced William Paterson's President, Dr. Kathleen Waldron, and offered introductory remarks about the week's activities and the concert's featured artist. Newman conveyed LaSpina's performance history with some of the music's great artists, his manner of relating to students, as well as his prowess as a composer.

The hour and twenty minute set afforded a rare opportunity to hear musicians closely associated with LaSpina perform a program of his original compositions. The selections spanned a wide range of moods, tempos, as well as utilizing the instrumentation in imaginative ways. "The Clouds," the set's opener, sported a bright, up-tempo theme articulated by Billy Drewes' soprano sax. By turns jaunty and thoughtful, "Reunion" was a waltz taken at a slow-to-medium pace engineered by LaSpina's irregular bass line and the flowing time feel of drummer Jon Di Fiore, a William Paterson graduate program alumnus. "A Place I've Not Forgotten" opened with simple, repeated figures by pianist Matthew Fries, and added Drewes' tenor, LaSpina' bowed bass, and Di Fiore's percussion as the piece evolved into a deliberate, rather pensive theme. The leader's light, humming tones, and alternation of strumming and single notes eventually took shape in "Serenity," appropriately referred to by the composer as "my version of a folk tune." At the onset of "The Road Ahead," Di Fiore moved back and forth between a couple of crashed cymbals and a decisive bass drum hit followed by a few seconds of nimble, free improvisation. The brief solo morphed into a haunting line played by Drewes' soprano over a lithe, bossa/funk underpinning.

LaSpina's bass guided the group in a steadfast, assured, understated manner. (Early on he requested that his bass be brought down in the sound mix.) In tandem with Di Fiore's lively yet unobtrusive drumming, his presence provided a core that each of the soloists could draw upon or deviate from, depending on the direction in which they wanted to take the music. In the midst of a good deal of movement and activity, Fries' improvisations always entailed a genuine sense of order. A long skittering run during "Sweet Dreams" ended gracefully, and he seamlessly moved on to the next idea. A chordal sequence—neat, precise, tidy—brought his turn on "The Clouds" to a fitting climax.

Drewes' work on tenor and soprano contained a skittish vibe, his notes often running circles around the rest of the band. Surging, crooked soprano lines throughout "The Clouds" pushed and pulled against the rhythm section's undertow. Dourly poking around Fries' repeated figure on "A Place I've Not Forgotten," Drewes eventually started building, shaping, and guiding the tenor until he reached a firmer, somewhat more decisive place. At the conclusion of "When It's Time Again," the concert's final selection, his soprano took liberties with LaSpina's theme, stretching, contracting and wringing it out.

In the music's second century, many of the jazz scenes of yore are the subject of books and essays, the focal point of concert series, and live on in the memories and imaginations of fans everywhere. In the present day, colleges and universities like William Paterson are essential scenes in themselves, by virtue of nurturing emerging talent, providing a respectful working environment for established artists, and giving audiences the opportunity to soak up a variety of sounds.

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