February 20, 2014
Last Tuesday, the half-filled Fillius Events Barn played host to one of the finest jazz concerts I have heard at Hamilton. Led by Professor of Music and bass extraordinaire, Michael “Doc” Woods, the New Voices in Jazz quintet featured Morgan McMillon on saxophone, Jeff Jewsome on trumpet, Tom Witkowski on piano and Rick Compton on drums.
The music, which maintained high energy for well over an hour, consisted of both jazz standards and Doc Woods originals. The three standards—Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring,” Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves” and Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are”—took the familiar charts to new heights. The up-tempo version of “Autumn Leaves” thrilled the audience in particular, with McMillion’s and Witkowski’s solos eliciting whoops as they fired off blazing-fast licks.
The real treats of the night, however, were the seven original pieces written by Hamilton’s own Woods, a phenomenal performer whose technical prowess on the bass complemented his intense emotional connection to the music. Woods sang along as he soloed, and anyone could tell as soon as he stepped on stage that this man lives for jazz.
The most interesting of Woods’ pieces were “Carbon Footprint” and “The 1st Dimension.” The former placed a unique melody over the familiar chord progression of the jazz standard “Blue Bossa,” which Woods explained in terms of the carbon footprint that each living creature leaves behind in his life. This tune allowed for the musicians to explore their playful side, with McMillion and Jewsome offering nods to the chart’s inspiration by quoting the melody of “Blue Bossa” in their solos. The latter song featured a spiritual element—the so-called “1st Dimension”—which Woods said deserved a place in any musical performance. The angular phrasing and lush harmonies contrasted with the be-bop of “Bop Heads” and the funk of “Reality Check.” The solos, moreover, allowed the quintet to showcase different aspects of their musicality, best demonstrated in Witkowski’s mixing of piano and synthesizer.
Like any great jazz concert, though, what made the night special was not any one particular song or solo, but rather the constant interplay between the musicians. Witkowski and Compton exchanged smiles and laughs as they played off each other’s rhythms, Jewsome and McMillion moved along to the music even when they were not playing and Woods’ walking bass lines set the tone for the remainder of the quintet. As the crowd gave its standing ovation following the nine-song set, I realized that not only was the musicianship impressive, but the fact that the musicians were having such a great time enhanced the entre experience to another level.
Despite its long struggle to earn respectability, jazz in 2014 is undoubtedly an established part of the American canon, with some even calling it America’s classical music. This elite respectability, however, has also hindered its popularity. People of my generation often see jazz as too complex or opaque. To me, however, Tuesday’s concert served as a stark reminder that, even with complex chord changes and extended horn solos, jazz is, above all else, fun music. One can only hope that Hamilton will continue to host great new voices in this timeless genre for generations to come.