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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

At Ease With Improvisation

Jazz at UMass Boston is not an exclusive club. “This particular jazz class incorporates all skill levels,” stated conductor Peter Janson, calling members “hardworking. We try to have each of them learn about the jazz language.” But you’d never guess that any among them were all that new to this musical dialect considering their fluency with the style.

The name of the program was “Jazz Vocal Ease,” but by no means were any of the pieces simple. Performers had to think fast, while Janson would step aside and leave them to take their own direction in the spotlight. The concert was two hours long, but that didn’t stop the audience from listening deeply to each song, drawing them in while still letting them relax on May 8.

Opening with “So What” by Miles Davis, it was during the second song, Count Basie’s “Blue Sentimental,” the crowd’s feet started tapping. During the latter piece, it seemed as if every student had a chance to strut their stuff, which was possible due to the small size of the class.

Janson explained that, “Overwhelmingly, all of these solos are improvised, never played before, thought up in the moment. This is one of the hallmarks of jazz.”

As impressive as the unique individual touches was the overall arrangement of the concert itself. Though there were three vocalists out of the fourteen members of the jazz band, equal attention was given to both freeform lyricism and instrumentalist riffs. Each musician appeared to bring a different kind of energy to solos. While alto sax player Joel Greenlee went red in the face, tenor sax man John Danahy appeared to be smiling and jamming even as he was glued to his seat during his many solos.

The theme of the evening appeared to be that of love lost. “Love is a spot/Lost in the dark/Lost in the dark too soon,” sang Marta Johnson in “Speak Low.” In “Desafinado,” Natalia Cooper crooned, “Like the bossa nove, love should sway.” The voice that was especially distinctive was that of Sean Bisson-Donahue, with a Blues Brothers-like outfit, and a growly, smokey sound.

Two numbers in particular, “Moonlight in Vermont,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train,” took your breath away. “Moonlight in Vermont,” was a sultry piece with Cooper as the musical narrator for the seasonal imagery of falling leaves, snow side ski trails, evening breezes, and meadowlarks. It was a sugary piece tinted with longing.

Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the final piece, drove the crowd to its feet and earned the jazz band a much-deserved standing ovation. The duet of well matched Cooper and Johnson turned into a playful scatting duel. Drummer Chris Dudensing and Danahy had the musical equivalent of a tennis match, bouncing back and forth with each trying to top the other in their improvisational rants. The arrangement performed at this concert was slower and yet brassier than a version performed three years ago in fall of 2001.

The reception afterwards provided a nice closing to the evening, allowing audience members to mingle with students. “Jazz Vocal Ease” was also easy on the ears without being dull. For a Saturday evening, Wheatley Hall auditorium was transformed into a dimly lit, romantic café.

About the Contributor
MiMi Yeh served as arts editor for The Mass Media the following years: 2001-2002; *2002-2003; 2003-2004 *Evan Sicuranza served as arts editor for Fall 2002 Disclaimer: Years served is based on online database and may not detail entire service.