I have been through biology labs, physics labs, chemistry labs and several neuroscience labs. Who could have guessed that the lab to bewilder me the most was none other than the University of Michigan’s own JazzLab Ensemble?
This past Thursday, the JazzLab Ensemble gathered in Rackham Auditorium for a night of renditions of classic jazz pieces directed by Dennis Wilson. A total of 27 musicians filtered on and off the stage between numbers as the group swept between different genres of jazz — from the slow lyrical jazz of “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” to the fast-paced moving jazz of “Flight to Nassau.”
The conductor of JazzLab Ensemble was energetic and engaged throughout the entire show and seemed to be truly enjoying himself leading the student group. Wilson also kept the crowd entertained in the dead-air between some of the pieces that involved shuffling of positions and musicians with backstories to some of the titles, as well as some impromptu stand-up comedy.
When SMTD senior Allison Taylor started singing, my throat became dry and my eyes began to water, as though I had tasted something unbelievably sweet beyond my gustatory capabilities. Taylor sang Wilson’s own arrangement of Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight” that left the audience breathless.
SMTD student Ben Powell performed the other vocal piece of the set, “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” that made me wonder if I was listening to Sinatra himself. Powell’s vocal performance came as somewhat of a surprise to those who were not familiar with the group, as Powell spent the first half of the performance tucked behind the piano, playing bass. Nonetheless, he slinked out from his perch and blew the crowd away, as he bellowed out notes that mimicked the bass he was playing just moments ago.
The group’s shining instruments matched the almost metallic tune. The golden pick-ups of Ian Thompson’s hollow-body guitar gleamed in the dim light of Rackham Auditorium.
I couldn’t help but notice at times that the performance felt a little disorganized, but this made the show more genuine. It felt more like a casual jam session than a choreographed routine, which is something that I actually enjoyed.
The JazzLab Ensemble were joined by Andrew Bishop, the director of the University’s Jazz Department at SMTD, who played beautiful alto saxophone. His fellow players — students within the department — looked up with pride and envy at Bishop as he played each mellow note. It was great to see faculty practice what they teach and to see it received so well by the students of the corresponding department.
The JazzLab Ensemble’s performance this past Thursday was truly one of the best performances I have seen from SMTD. The variety and extent of talent that can be found in Ann Arbor is a hallmark of the University.