A week ago tonight I went to a concert. I invited my friend Mister Guitar, and he invited his friend, Sustainable Girl. I knew what to expect, they did not.
The concert was a fundraiser for IAJE, which the North Carolina Central University Jazz Ensemble and Vocal Ensemble have been invited to participate in January. Quite an honor.
When I issued the invitation, I didn’t give them any background. Just that it was free jazz concert and fundraiser for the college.
We arrived on campus and walked to the auditorium. I let Mister Guitar select the seats, as I figured he’d have the best idea about acoustics.
The director of the Jazz Studies Program at NCCU, Dr. Ira Wiggins is the ultimate professional. It is apparent how much he cares about these kids and this music. As the band took the stage, there he was wiggin’ on the sound. By that I mean he was adjusting each and every microphone for the front saxophone section – and the mic for the guest soloist. Once everything was arranged to his satisfaction, he turned to the audience, welcomed us – and then they were off.
The first set included Robot Portrait by Quincy Jones, Down by the Riverside by Oliver Nelson, and March Majestic by Bob Mintzer. This last piece had a definite New Orleans “Second Line” feel to it and it was fun to watch the trumpet section carrying out their own step.
The guest soloist for the evening was Derrick Gardner – and he stepped into the spot light as the band played John Coltrane’s A Night in Tunsisia. One of my all time favorite compositions. In the solo sections his sound took flight and filled that auditorium. Although it was easy to see how much fun he was having with this solo – and others throughout the evening, in every instance he was generous with the students, letting them shine.
A spectacular instance of this came at the end of the evening. The last piece was Giant Steps, another Coltrane song. Throughout it there were numerous solos for the students. One of the last was a drum solo. As the drummer hit his stride, he just took off – leaving the rest of the group behind. Banging and bashing, syncopating cymbals, snares, and bass in perfect combo. As you might guess, since the piece was a Coltrane vehicle, the true solo spot was for the trumpeter. But as Dr. Wiggins waved him in on his que, he declined, instead choosing to enjoy the enthusiasm and joyfulness of the percussion work. Now that’s a sign of musical respect and earned accolade, if you ask me.
Sitting here a week later, there is no way to convey what fun it was to watch these kids play. Let me tell you. This group is not your typical “school” ensemble. I mean, we’ve all suffered through enough of those, haven’t we? These kids were pro’s. And talk about spark and personality!
I have a soft spot for upright bassists. They just get my groove going. The bassist for the ensemble, AJ Brown, was magnificent. As I sat there in the dark, the wattage from my smile would have been enough to spotlight his talent. But it seems he doesn’t need my encouragement. Even though he is only a Junior, he’d just returned from a week of gigging with Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center. How many of us could ever hope to be asked to sub for a regular in that band? To see him thump and flail on that instrument was too much fun. One moment his eyes were closed in the ecstasy of the moment, then the next – they were open wide, body shimming to the score. It was hard to stay in my seat and not start dancing in the aisles.
Another thing about the evening that caused my smile to broaden was two members of the saxophone section. Two young girls – blowing their brains out on a tenor saxophone and bari saxophone. Pretty impressive holding their own on solos against the guys. (not that I’m prejudice, or anything, you understand)
I have a page and a half of more notes from the evening – but instead of transcribing them I will just tell you, a week later I’m still smiling over the music and verve I experienced that night. This is high on the list of “Good Things About Living in the South”. I cannot wait for their next concert, nor the annual Valentines Concert they do in conjunction with Duke’s and UNC Chapel Hill’s Jazz Studies Programs.
Yep, I’m just blown away with their talent.