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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.

The second set took place in the late afternoon in a smaller and more casual setting called the "Education Stage" reminiscent of a bandstand in a local park. This time they played standards and jazz classics that rocked. Don Sebesky's phenomenally swinging arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's classic "Take the A Train" gave Salazar, Mele, trumpeter Justus Mera, and trombonists Patrick Conlon and David Byrd opportunities to go all out and emulate some of the phrases used in the definitive recordings by the Duke Ellington bands. A strong swinging feeling pervaded the whole set, which seemed organized for that purpose. Two Thad Jones pieces, "HRH (Her Royal Highness)" and "Big Dipper," the latter highlighted by Wesley Robinson's fine piano solo, lent a more sophisticated edge to the occasion, while Ellington's "I Got It Bad," arranged by the late former band director Bill Zaccagni for whom the "Z" Band is named, evoked the swing era, although its thick harmonies gave it a more modern sound. The concluding "Straphangin," a Brecker Brothers tune arranged by Vince Mendoza, created organized mayhem! Tirfe and Salazar remarkably evoked the styles of Michael and Randy Brecker and took the set into the stratosphere for a very satisfying conclusion.

The "Z" Band proved themselves more than up to the task of delivering two tight, well-articulated, and swinging performances. But what was especially notable was the way they moved and stirred the audiences. There is a magic that occurs in some jazz performances that leaves people feeling exuberantly joyful. I go back as far as the Newport and Randall's Island Festivals of the late 1950s, when such a feeling was pervasive, because modern jazz was just coming of age. Today, it takes a certain "something" to make that happen. Somehow, the "Z" Band made that happen. I think that, however sentimental it might seem, the magical ingredient was love. These guys obviously love the music and, most importantly, they love making it their own. And they have developed a camaraderie amongst one another that gives the music a personal touch. Much of this spirit is owed to director Gallagher, who has devoted himself beyond the call of duty to recruiting, inspiring, and challenging the members of this band to a higher purpose—all with obvious love for them and the musical heritage.

Musicians of the Future

College and conservatory bands are an important phenomenon in the contemporary jazz scene. Because more and more jazz musicians are taking the path of extensive formal music education, college bands are a barometer of what is to come, signaling what might happen in the future of the music. I doubt whether any of these bands could be characterized as "typical"—they probably vary greatly—but the "Z" Band speaks to one particular direction which jazz musicians are taking early in their careers. These players are trying to master all the elements and aspects of the music and the business, rather than plunging into the chaotic but courageous and creative lives and situations of their pioneering forebears.

I spoke at some length with three band members after the performance. I grabbed them because I especially enjoyed the way they played and because they happened to be wandering around backstage. So they were special, but they could be considered a small representative sample of the whole band. I asked them about their influences, mentors, and experience with the "Z" Band, as well as their plans and dreams for the future.

Tenor saxophonist Henry Tirfe, the band's "Weapon X," wows everyone with his remarkable ability to generate powerful extended solos that never flag. His parents are first generation immigrants from the small country of Eritrea on the horn of Africa. His given name is Hiruy, anglicized as Henry. His name means "leader," and for all we know, his ancestors could have been tribal chieftains who led trance music that has played an important role in jazz. In any case, he represents the diversity of ethnic and national origins that is enriching jazz today. He cites as two major influences the great Dick Oatts and of course John Coltrane. (To me, he sounds more like Dexter Gordon.) His main saxophone teacher has been Mike Cemprola, who "was one of the few teachers and musicians that genuinely looked out for me." For Tirfe, the "Z" Band has "helped me to play at a higher level with greater discipline than before." Right now, Hiruy works with Chill Moody, Tre Lambert, the NOW Generation, Jay Bratten, Solange Knowles, and others. He is also "working a lot on original material and hopefully if all goes well my debut record will be out on my birthday, February 26th of next year. My dream is to simply travel the world playing my music."

Tirfe's awesome improvisational skills suggest that he could go anywhere with his future playing, whether straight ahead, avant-garde, world music, rock, or some combination of them. This is what we see with many musicians emerging from the educational process. They are packed with ability, but in a few years their teachers may not recognize what they are playing. Today, mentorship means acquiring the skills, not necessarily following the mentor's approach, which was the case in the past.

Trumpeter Matt Salazar impresses me with the fluency of his playing, and the way in which he searches seriously for the next interesting phrase that is going to come out of his horn. He sounds a lot like Woody Shaw, whom he cites as a major influence, "a joy to listen to, while his command of the horn and harmonic concepts are incredibly interesting, and offer a challenge." He has also exposed himself intensively to John Swana, appreciating his large and original output and "how fluently he blends bebop language and advanced harmony and chromaticism." Other trumpet influences and mentors have been Gallagher, Josh Lawrence, and George Rabbai.

Salazar says that the "Z" Band has "changed my DNA. Because of the amount of work Gallagher put on us, I had to dig in or get out fast. His trial-by-fire method taught the band to blow through a massive amount of performances with only a few rehearsals. This sounds like it could be a detriment to a band, but the fact that we knew we were all on the same team ensured that we put out the highest-quality product possible." Everyone in the band with whom I've spoken echoes these sentiments. Salazar has a clear idea of the future outlines of his career: being a freelance musician combined with private teaching and a university position.

Salazar exemplifies a young musician who is immersed in the tradition yet has a creative approach to it. He is one of those who is going to keep the mainstream pulse alive, adapt to almost any situation, form his own group, and play with many other groups as well. Musicians like him make for great nightclub and concert music in any city and have a strong influence on those they teach and with whom they perform.

I was very taken by Wesley Robinson's piano playing. While he mostly stayed in his role as a rhythm section "sideman," his style, which reminds me a bit of Kenny Barron, as well as his ability to create an original phrase, comes through even when he is just comping for the band. He especially digs Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock (who doesn't?), and he has studied with the finest jazz pianists and teachers such as Don Glanden, Tom Lawton, Myra Murphy, and Jim Holton. This is serious training. Again in a serious and humble mode, Robinson says that the "Z' Band "has taught me about adapting to playing in different environments and with a lot of other musicians rather than just a small ensemble."

You never know what's going to happen with a musician like Robinson. Right now, he is introspective and waiting for something to happen. He could end up as just a great session musician. Or -boom! -he might break out into something unique as did Cecil Taylor or Muhal Richard Abrams. He is very open to what might happen, and he is one of those who sometimes surprises everyone.

The "Z" Band reminds us that we ought to take these so-called "practice bands" more seriously. Their leader, Matt Gallagher, realized its significance early on and, while a busy trumpet player with the Philly Pops and many other commitments, threw himself into the project. Like the "Boys of Summer," nothing lasts forever, and the guys will go their own way, but this band will have made a lasting mark on each of them and the future of jazz.

Personnel: Saxophones: Anthony Nigro, 1st Alto; Dustyn DeBernardo, 2nd Alto; Henry Tirfe, 1st Tenor; Peter Frank, 2nd Tenor: Wyatt Cooper, Baritone. Trumpets: Andrew Conners , Lead; Matt Salazar; Dallas Taylor; Justus Mera, Joe Lockwood. Trombones: Chris Mele, Lead; Patrick Conlon, David Byrd, Jonathan Ford, Bass Trombone. Rhythm: Sam Riessen, Guitar; Wes Robinson, Piano; Alex Delcourt, Bass; John Venezia, Drums; Kevin Blanke; Drums.

Set Lists: 1:30PM Garden Stage: Intensities in 10 Cities (Baylock); G'Day Mates (Whitfield); Body and Soul (arr. Bambridge); Floor is Lava (Lombardelli). 4:30PM Jazz Education Stage: Take the A Train (Strayhorn, arr. Sebesky); HRH (Her Royal Highness) (Thad Jones); It Might as Well Be Spring (Arr. Shemeria); Big Dipper (Thad Jones); Straphangin (Brecker Brothers, arr. Mendoza).

Photo Credit: Kevin Merinsky, University of the Arts

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