April 10, 2014
April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM). The festival was established in 2001 by John Edward Hasse, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. JAM was created to bring America’s own musical heritage to the public spotlight. Last week, Hamilton celebrated JAM April 13 with performances by several well-known jazz artists. On Thursday, the Fillius Events Barn added piano extraordinaire Junior Mance to its long list of distinguished performers, and six-time Grammy Award-nominee Nnenna Freelon graced the Wellin stage with her dynamic presence.
JAM is an international festival dedicated to stimulating the jazz scene all over the world. The Junior Mance Trio, composed of Junior Mance himself on piano, violinist Michi Fuji, and bassist Hide Tanaka, is an apt representation of jazz’s international influence, as both Fuji and Tanaka were born in Japan. When asked why she chose to come to America, Fuji responded, “I wanted to learn real jazz, so I needed to be in New York.”
The group was introduced to an audience filled with eager jazz students and community members by Monk Rowe, the Joe Williams Director of the Fillius Jazz Archive at Hamilton. Rowe expressed his excitement for the performance, telling the story of his own introduction to Mance’s music when he heard Mance’s composition “Harlem Lullaby” on the radio as a teenager. Rowe has been working for years to compile video interviews of living jazz legends. His 1995 interview with Mance is available online on the Jazz Archives website.
The trio demonstrates the constantly developing nature of jazz music. Whereas a group of this size normally includes a drummer, Mance’s group chose to disregard tradition to a unique end. Tanaka was able to hold down the tempo and fill the spaces that could have felt empty without a drummer. Tanaka’s unorthodox approach to the bass drew the audience into his performance as he made use of harmonics to play far outside the normal range of a bass.
The bass’ prevalence throughout the night was remarkable, but drew special attention during a rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tin Tin Deo.” Originally composed as part of a 1940s movement towards introducing more Afro-Latin American music into jazz, this piece yet again emphasized the ever-changing nature of jazz. Tanaka’s dexterous fingers established a rich foundation for the melody, while simultaneously incorporating several percussive interjections to further charm the audience.
Meanwhile, Fuji proved that the violin can be just as much a jazz instrument as the saxophone. Her bold sound demonstrated a confidence of technique and a knowledge of the genre that comes only with a great deal of love for jazz. In the group’s interpretation of “Sunset and the Mockingbird,” Fuji filled the room with its haunting melody. Throughout the performance, she also exhibited a sense of humor by throwing quotes from classic jazz tunes, and even “Entrance of the Gladiators” into her improvised solos.
The group played a mix of Mance’s originals and old standards, yet every tune managed to sound fresh under Mance’s imaginative fingers. His offbeat rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” recognizable to even the rookie listener, somehow gave the impression of creating something pleasingly unfamiliar. The organic jam-session feel of the night further supported this impression.
Mance sat at the piano, grinning contentedly throughout the night. Even during tricky solo passages, he never shaved any sign of effort. Mance, born in 1928, has been playing jazz piano since the age of five, and has composed many classics of his own. He started playing professionally during his early teens and performed as a sideman to the likes of the saxophone legend of “Cannonball” Adderley, drummer Art Blakey, singer Aretha Franklin, trumpet-player Dizzy Gillespie, saxophone player Dexter Gordon and many more. Mance has also performed and recorded as the headman for several groups, including his recent album The Three of Us, released in 2012, featuring the same trio he brought to Hamilton.
Just two days after Mance’s concert, jazz singer Nnenna Freelon made a visit to the Hill. Wellin Hall was filled with enthusiastic members of the Clinton community and Hamilton students alike. The line for tickets alone was tribute to Freelon’s ability to draw and captivate an audience. Freelon was warmly introduced by Jeffrey Stockham, lecturer in music (Jazz trumpet) at Hamilton, who aptly characterized her as “dynamic and delightful.”
An expressive performer, Freelon seemed unable to resist moving and dancing as she sang. Even her speaking voice seemed almost songlike.She described her group’s music as “a non-standard approach to the standards.” While playing old favorites such as “Smile” and “Misty,” Freelon and her group never succumbed to the influence of tradition, always managing to leave their own impression on each song.
Further evidence to this effect was supplied when Freelon sang Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” a crowd favorite. As she sang, she held a pale pink rose, which added an undeniably romantic element to this already poignant piece. Freelon’s powerful voice and breathtaking vocal control elicited ardent applause from the audience, only breaking the start of her next song.
Following a standing ovation, Freelon performed “Moon River” as an encore dedicated to her mother. In her parting words, the jazz great advised her audience, “When you see someone that’s in the profession of arts, give them a hug and $5.00.” For those members of the Hamilton community who aren’t sure where to find someone in the business of performing arts, here’s a hint: Hamilton’s celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month will continue next Monday, April 14, with a performance from our own student-run jazz combos at 9:00 p.m. in Opus 1.