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University of the Arts “Z” Big Band: Jumpin’ at the Monterey Jazz Festival

University of the Arts “Z” Big Band: Jumpin’ at the Monterey Jazz Festival
Victor L. Schermer By

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Umiversity of the Arts "Z" Big Band
Monterey Jazz Festival
Monterey, CA
September 17, 2017

[This article is a follow-up to the review of the "Z" Band Reception and Kickoff Concert in Philadelphia on September 7. If you want to know a little more about the band, you can check out that review-Eds.]

The famed Monterey Jazz Festival, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, is the longest-running jazz festival in the U.S. Featuring both legendary and up and coming musicians and groups, it is a mammoth three day event like a shopping mall of high end live jazz. You stroll along the Fairgrounds, eat, talk, shop at boutique stands, and attend whatever concerts you desire, in small intimate settings or big stages, indoors and out.

While the big-top events like Chick Corea/Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron, Roberta Gambarini, and Brad Mehldau/Chris Thile drew the crowds, this reviewer specifically went on a more humble assignment to follow up on a previous story about the University of the Arts "Z" Band, co-winner of Monterey's "Next Generation" big band competition. I flew whirlwind across the country from Philadelphia and back just to see and hear how what is basically a college practice band would stack up against some of the big time legends. I did it because I'm interested in jazz education and the future of jazz, and the "Z" Band represents an important segment of young musicians fresh out off their undergraduate studies. I also was impressed by the band's potential when I heard them in Philadelphia. So I asked myself, how would they do in the big leagues surrounded by the best in their profession?

Despite my enthusiasm for the band, I felt apprehensive when I went to the outdoor Garden Stage where they were scheduled to do their first of two sets. There were many empty seats. I went backstage a few minutes before the start, and the musicians hadn't even arrived yet. (Thoughts of Charlie Parker's mysterious disappearances came to mind.) I later learned that they spent the morning playing touch football on the beach! (What a way to rehearse for a gig!) But when the time came, they hopped on stage relaxed and nattily attired in black suits not unlike the garb of the Modern Jazz Quartet. And they played up a storm! People on the nearby walkways heard them and began filling up the place. By the end of the set, the big outdoor venue was packed. Their sound was like a magnet attracting the multitudes. And they received a well-deserved standing ovation. It was sheer magic! I found myself caught up in the excitement.

Led by revered music director Matt Gallagher, the band recapitulated four numbers from their September 7th concert in Philadelphia. They charged into battle with the opening number, Alan Baylock's "Intensities in 10 Cities," featuring laid back and creative solos by guitarist Sam Riessen, trumpeter Matt Salazar, tenor saxophonist Henry Tirfe, and drummer Kevin Blanke. (I spoke with Salazar and Tirfe after the gig, and will have more to say about them later.) For Scott Whitfield's beautiful arrangement of his own "'G'Day Mates," trombonist Chris Mele delivered a lucid and compelling solo testing the ultra high register of the trombone. John Bambridge's challenging arrangement of "Body and Soul" gave saxophonist Tirfe an opportunity for a knockout solo. (Known awesomely as "Weapon X" by the band, Tirfe, along with Riessen and saxophonist Anthony Nigro, won best soloist awards at the Monterey Next Generation Festival competition in April.). Finally, the title of band alumnus Vince Lombardelli's "Floor is Lava" seems to be a metaphor for the cunning use he made of the lower register instruments swimming beneath the staccato-ish theme and variations of the upper parts of the chart. The way the band sailed through this extremely challenging chart led the audience to its feet with cheers and applause.

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