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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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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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