Jazz showcase for the ages

Friday, October 4, 2019 - 3:02pm

Natalie Kastner

Natalie Kastner Buy this photo
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The University of Michigan School of Music, Theater & Dance’s Jazz Showcase by undergraduate and graduate jazz music students was presented at Hankinson Hall in the Moore building Thursday night. 

I was blown away. I was absolutely elevated to a more professional level of artistry than I have ever experienced at this University. (Actually, seeing Audra MacDonald at Hill Auditorium was the very top, but these kids gave her a run for her money.) 

When I asked trumpet player/vocalist Ben Green from the band Sabbatical Bob why these showcases are so important at the University, he said the showcase “gives people perspective on where 90 percent of pop music they listen to is coming from. America’s entire music tradition is built on Black music, and ... that’s super important. Like what we were playing, the funk music and the big band music, everything we were playing tonight, it all stems from Black music.”

Upon walking in, I was greeted with big band number “Without A Song,” with lyrics by William Rose and Edward Eliscu and music by Vincent Youmans and arranged by Rick Stitzel. My attention was immediately transfixed on the conductor; faculty member Ellen Rowe. Her back turned to the audience, Rowe reminded me of Edna Mode from Pixar movie “The Incredibles,” with her petite yet fiery frame commanding the Jazz Ensemble to an unmatched vibrancy. 

This was immediately followed by a performance of “Old Folks,” with lyrics written by Dedette Lee Hill and music by Willard Robison. The song, performed by music faculty members Ellen Rowe on piano and Dennis Wilson on a bluesy trombone, demonstrated a simple sense of humor and confident mastery of the artists’ craft. 

Original composition “Milkshake Boy Est Mort” by senior Mohan Ritsema was the most traditionally “jazz” composition, and it was really intriguing to see a brand new piece of music on its feet for the first time. I’m excited to see how it evolves. 

The most enthralling performance of the evening had to be Horace Tapscott’s “To the Great House” with graduate jazz student Zekkereya El-magharbel leading the piece on trombone. Even counting my time in jazz clubs in New York City, I have never witnessed a performance quite like his.

El-magharbel played the trombone like it was a true extension of his body, like he was giving his entire human will to perform with; to say I’m eager to see where he goes next is an understatement. He elevated the room, and fellow jazz students also performing the number around him were elevated due to his professional artistry which provided an all around fabulous performance. 

Another standout was a bluegrass number titled “As Yet Untitled” written by Grant Flick and performed by jazz students Grant Flick on violin and Matt Davis on banjo. The complexity of the music and upbeat nature of bluegrass which I have only heard before in Nashville gave great variety to the show. 

“There’s something special about U of M, especially, that doesn’t really hold true in other places. You’ve got a funk band, a bluegrass band, a Bill Evans style piano trio, and a free improv group all in one set,” Cole Abod, a senior studying Jazz piano, said.

The final numbers of the night were performed by funk band Sabbatical Bob. Jazz was originally my uncle’s favorite musical medium that he passed down to me, and he has since passed away. The majority of my childhood was spent following him in and out of jazz clubs near his home of New York City. When I met Ben Green of band Sabbatical Bob, it felt like a wink from the universe that the University’s Jazz ensemble is a program to be remembered.

The name Sabbatical Bob came out of “the spirit of Bob (Jazz faculty member and acclaimed bassist Bob Hurst) on sabbatical.” Originally a band primarily playing small gigs and house parties, Sabbatical Bob are now performing at venues like The Blind Pig and Ziggy’s (their next show is there on Nov. 22) in Ypsi and have music on all streaming platforms.