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

Victor L. Schermer By

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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."

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