Ike Sturm, HEART and the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra Stun on Jazz Weekend

Lawrence University hosted Fred Sturm Jazz Celebration Weekend begining Nov. 6 with a number of concerts and workshops. Photo by Alana Melvin.

I can’t really write an article about Ike Sturm with full objectivity. There’s a significant argument to be made that no critical writing on arts and entertainment can be fully objective, as they are perhaps inherently subjective areas, but, that discussion aside, I have no doubt that objectivity really has no place in my writing on Ike Sturm in particular.  

I say this because Sturm was really the catalyst for why I came to Lawrence. When I visited as a high school senior, the end to my whirlwind late-April trip to Appleton was seeing Sturm’s duo project Endless Field perform with a number of Conservatory faculty and friends of the band. Looking back, I recall this being an unassumingly free midweek event, surprising given that Sturm is the son of the late jazz giant Fred Sturm, formerly the Director of Jazz and Improvisational Music at Lawrence, a faculty member at the prestigious Eastman School of Music and an unmatched composer and arranger. Beyond this connection to Lawrence, I knew next to nothing of Ike Sturm, Endless Field or most of the guests appearing with him for this concert. 

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this event quite possibly swayed the needle towards Lawrence in my college search. I recall being mesmerized by the musical thoughtfulness and prowess of every band member. I was blown away by the group’s seamless fusion of alternative, ambient, classical and jazz musical styles, and I was enamored of the virtuosity and communication displayed by Sturm on bass, his duo partner, Jesse Lewis, on guitar, and their guest collaborators. Simply put, I had quite literally never heard music so technically grounded yet emotionally profound.

This is why I can’t really write an article about Ike Sturm with full objectivity. At the same time, this is also why I knew I’d write about him upon his Nov. 6 return to Lawrence for 2021’s Fred Sturm Jazz Weekend. Everything indicated this would be a very special show: Sturm’s return involved the members of his sextet project HEART, several powerhouse guests and the shining new Lawrence Chamber Orchestra (LCO). The collage of world-class musicians Sturm gathered for this performance was truly remarkable; as an Eastman graduate and a prime forward-thinker in 21st century jazz and contemporary music, Sturm needs little introduction. Yet every one of his collaborators was also a genuine force. HEART, comprised of vocalist Melissa Stylianou, alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, guitarist Jesse Lewis (also of Endless Field) and drummer Johnathan Blake, is a collection of inspiring musical talents from across the jazz world. World-renowned tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin and Lawrence’s own incomparable trombone professor Tim Albright appeared as guests to complete this truly jaw-dropping lineup.  

Very rarely does a concert meet my expectations. That’s an idea to which I’m assuming many of us can relate; often when we see our favorite artists, we come away disappointed that things didn’t match the image we had conjured in our minds. In this case, however, the soulfulness and love in Sturm’s show shattered all expectations. It’s challenging to relay the event in writing; sure, I could try to describe every picture which Louis and McCaslin painted through their bustling saxophone duets or through their improvised solos’ radiant melodies. I could try to recount every expansively textured groove developed by Blake’s lightning-fast drumming, Dingman’s metronomic vibraphone lines and Lewis’ and Sturm’s expertly coordinated musical conversations on guitar and bass. I could try to capture in words every luscious cinematic string contribution from the LCO, Stylianou’s impassioned and virtuosic vocal performances or Albright’s stunning vibrancy and warmth across a wide range of fast improvised solos and trombone balladry. I could strive to characterize the anticipation, excitement and reflectiveness of the eager audience packing the Memorial Chapel.  

What I mean to say is an attempt at description would amount to a literal concert play-by-play, and I don’t think that does justice to the emotional investment that Sturm, the band and the audience shared together in the night’s music. From the sweeping songfulness of the nature-inspired “Wide and Free” to the rawness of the grippingly climatic “Connection” (about the Mexican-U.S. border crisis) and the uninhibited passion of the ballad “Family,” written by Ike for his father and featuring stirring solo performances from Stylianou and Albright, the sheer emotion present in the performance of this anthemic, authentic and truly heartfelt music said uncountable volumes about reaching for light in our world. Objectivity aside, the value in that is truly priceless.