Bumping and Grinding with UMB Jazz Band

MiMi Yeh

The word “jazz” brings to mind images of stolen moments, curling smoke, fast cars, and zoot suits. The actual sight and sound of the UMB jazz band gets your feet tapping and your body bouncing. Most high school and college bands are poorly funded and trained and, because of that, the vocal and instrumental ability of the students suffer.

Although the UMB Music Department is short on cash, it has no problem at all with talent and style.

Last Saturday night, the jazz band gave a mind-blowing music experience at the “Playin’ the (Jazz) Changes” program, providing an interesting background and counterpoint to the dizzying scat solos of Colleen Rusconi and the sultry, sexy undertones of Marta J. Johnson. These two ladies both mix fire and ice. Johnson goes from pouty and pushy to sweet and sassy while Rusconi adds poetry (“Well You Needn’t It’s Over Now”) and passion to the quick-spirited scatting that she does so skillfully.

Peter Janson, director of the UMB jazz band, taught his students well in achieving an equal balance between the instrumental and the vocal. Usually, singers end up all but inaudible during most performances because of low-quality microphone setups and instrumental overcompensation. Not this group. They knew when to let loose and when to hold back, taking our hands through the many solos and pushing us along at other points.

Not to be missed on vibes and percussion was Josh Brennan, whose improvisatory skills upon the conch were the highlight of the evening, besides the a capella surprise in “St. Thomas” when the entire group successfully harmonized for a few lines. Thierry Pelissier’s and Hiroshi Nohmi’s respective piano and trumpet duet was also to be remembered in the latter, “St. Thomas.”

With classics like “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Black Coffee” our emotions were deftly manipulated to provide manic highs and soul wrenching lows. Of course Casey Abrams’ and Nathan C. Okite’s efforts on guitar and Colin O’Day’s accompanying bass are not to be forgotten besides shy Jeff Clough bouncing along on the drums.

With little or no money coming their way, the jazz band ends up performing at UMass functions and being paid through Student Life. Yet, without those occasions there would be no money for new instruments or expenses incurred. The University Jazz Band Support Fund received contributions from Creative Entertainment, Wheatley Copy Center, Daddy’s Junky Music, Wood and Strings Music, and Acoustic Bass of New England.

How are they able to do all this on a shoestring budget? Sheer hard work. Word has it that one of the vocalists fell ill and Rusconi and Johnson had to divide three songs between them only a few days before the performance. The added stress didn’t show on the vocalists or the instrumentalists who took it all in stride and remained smiling all the way. Let’s hope the holiday season fattens their finances and brings new opportunities. They deserve it.