Concert Review 3 for the University Latin Jazz Ensembles
Jazz performances tend to be cool, relaxed settings. Unlike orchestral performances, the performers will walk around, talk to and react toe ach other during sets, and occasionally even laugh. Even with the informal feel, the performers usually have an understood feeling of restraint to maintain the focus on the music. I don’t think that was an issue for the San Jose State University Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble and Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble.
Earlier tonight, I went to Campbell Recital Hall to listen to these two groups perform. Because of the small room, the setting was very intimate and perhaps appropriate for as little as a soloist. The SJSU ensemble, however, brought 24 performers, with at least 18 on stage for each set. I had never been to a Latin jazz performance before, so the instrumentation seemed somewhat odd to me immediately, and my surprise continued when the first piece began with everyone just clapping different rhythms. Once they began playing their instruments, however, I discovered how unsuited the ensemble was for the room. With at least 8 percussionists, there was constantly noise coming, which often drowned out the 5 horns. The first piece, “Intercambio,” was through-composed and did the most to set me up for the style of music I would hear for the rest of the evening. The instrumentation and rhythms were definitely derived from jazz, but the timbre and blend of sounds was distinctly Latin.
Their second piece, “Philadelphia Mambo,” had an aaba form that was fairly easy to follow. Going into the solo sections, the performers reminded me most of a swing feel; it wasn’t complex like bebop or contemplative like cool but actually something familiar and almost danceable. The third piece was a Gershwin tune, “Love Walked In,” with a decent vocalist. The performance really let loose, however, on the fourth piece, “The Big Payback” by James Brown. They brought up a vocalist who did an excellent James Brown impression including gestures and spontaneous sound. At this point, I realized that the various players dancing while playing and smiling and grooving were likely more of the style than disrespectful. While in a different setting, a player snapping his fingers might be the biggest gesture, the ensemble definitely added an entire visual aspect to their playing just to make it more fun. Add in some audience participation, and the experience was just fun.
After two more sets, the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble took the stage with only 10 performers. While they also played with a similar style and had the fun aspects thrown in, I was amazed how much they contrasted with the previous group, especially given my unfamiliarity with Latin jazz. Perhaps best put by Leland, SJSU was more Latin jazz while Stanford was more Latin jazz. The first piece was “Un Tipo Como Yo,” a fun piece with a good vocalist. Along with the second piece, “Piesotes,” I realized that this ensemble tended to focus more on the individual soloists instead of just grooving and seeing what happened. In their performance, they made a gesture towards SJSU with a beat-boxing duet, so it was clear that while the Stanford ensemble perhaps took the structure of the pieces more seriously, they were just as willing to have fun playing.
The performance concluded with both ensembles on stage together playing John Coltrane’s “Blue Train.” While absolutely absurd, the performance by more than 30 musicians ended up being just as lively and entertaining as the rest of the concert. A token amount of direction was necessary to avoid chaos, but it was the perfect example of performers on-stage and performing for themselves, just because they enjoyed playing.