September 16, 2013
“You have to experiment,” said Professor Michael “Doc” Woods. Last Wednesday, Woods experimented with mixing jazz and chamber music by playing his own compositions in the annual Jazz Kick-Off Concert, which this year was entitled “Chaymbuh Flav.”
Woods augmented the traditional jazz combination of trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass and drums with violin and bassoon. The bassoon, in particular, is rarely found in jazz music, and the inclusion of this typically classical instrument along with the violin provided a visual indication of the merge between chamber and jazz.
I found the addition ultimately unsuccessful, as the bassoon and violin simply did not blend well. Violinist Joe Davoli’s solos felt stiff and the volume of the trumpet and saxophone in the ensemble parts overpowered broth the violin and bassoon. That said, I was impressed with bassoonist Greg Quick who took some great solos on an instrument not known for improvisation.
The concert started off with two feel-good songs, “A Lit’l Sumpthin Sumpthin” and “Inchy How,” which got both the audience and band grooving. From the beginning, the band was conversant and comfortable. Trumpeter Jeff Stockham, saxophonist Bob Cesari and pianist Tom Witkowski have played in previous Jazz Kick-Off concerts with Woods. They were joined by an exceptional drummer, Mark Lomax, who connected especially well with Witkowski. The interplay between them made the rhythm section lively and exciting.
The highlight of the concert was pianist Sar-Shalom Strong’s solo performance of the “Proverbs.” Only part of the piece was written out and Woods had left much of the piece open for Strong to improvise and recombine themes. The sections of improvisation were seamless with the rest of the piece and very tasteful.
The “Chaymbah Flav” Suite was marked by longer sections of written interaction between instruments, which was a departure from traditional jazz forms. Philosophically, the suite seemed to be most concerned with the process of making choices. “A Narrow Bridge Prelude” set up the sense of uncertainty, while “A Narrow Bridge” evoked the fine line between extremes in life. “No Straight Line” expressed a recognition that, according to the program notes, “Often times the road to our dreams takes unexpected turns.” “Beneath Our Streets” served as a reminder of the dark outcomes of poor choices. “Proverbs” indicated forms of guidance and “Gumption” (my favorite song in the suite) conjured courage in the face of adversity and uncertainty.
The band seemed to struggle somewhat playing some of the more written-out ensemble-heavy pieces, particularly “A Narrow Bridge” and its prelude. I felt that the band sounded hesitant and did not sell Woods’s compositions, though it should be noted that pianist Tom Witkowski took an excellent solo on “A Narrow Bridge.” Of the pieces that were most closely related to chamber music, the band excelled in “No Straight Line” and the balance between chamber and jazz seemed to be at its best.
The concert ended on the high note of the disco-inspired “Pfrum Nuh Git Go,” which let the band loose again. The suite retained Woods’s characteristic sense of humor, but was also infused with a greater degree of uncertainty and sensitivity.