34th annual Jazz Celebration Weekend: a bittersweet affair

By Izzy Yellen

This past Friday and Saturday, Nov. 7-8, Lawrence University hosted the 34th annual Jazz Celebration Weekend. It was a bittersweet celebration, as this year marked the first year without Fred Sturm, the Director of Jazz and Improvisational Music and creator of Jazz Celebration Weekend. Sturm built the weekend from the ground up—creating a non-competitive festival filled with clinics from guest musicians for the students to learn from.

Since its inauguration, it has grown from featuring three bands and guest musicians to all of Lawrence’s bands—five combos and two big bands—numerous secondary school bands and guest musicians. This year the guest musicians were drummers Terri Lyne Carrington with “The Mosaic Project” and Peter Erskine.

Carrington and her group played Friday night, kicking off the festivities. Her band consisted of her on drums, Tia Fuller on reeds, Josh Hari on bass, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Lizz Wright on vocals and Rachel Z on piano. The Mosaic Project played a collage of styles, incorporating elements of fusion, soul, free jazz and funk.

While all the band members were quite talented as individuals and with each other, a fair amount of what they played sounded a bit gimmicky and forced. The hodgepodge of styles made for a mostly unfocused concert. While they were good at playing all the different styles, the music would have been more effective if they focused less on each tune, and more on the music in general.

Despite this, the technique and experience of each player was enjoyable to watch and hear. Specifically, Jensen’s trumpet solos. Unlike many players today, she used a lot of space and silence in her solos. This is important because not only does it allow the band to interact more, but it also asks those listening to appreciate the music and silence more.

Wright was another star of the project. While her genre was more soul than it was jazz, she had a powerful and assertive, yet beautiful and rich voice. Because she took command of the band, she was able to steer them towards a more focused soul sound, rather than various styles. This was my favorite part of the concert because while it was not necessarily jazz, it brought all the musicians together to provide a hip background for a gorgeous voice.

After a full day of combo and big band concerts and clinics, jazz players and listeners of all ages came together in Memorial Chapel to see drummer Peter Erskine play sets with the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble (LUJE) and the Lawrence University Jazz Faculty Trio. This concert featured Erskine—a jazz great who has been on over 600 albums—young players with a future in jazz and the talented faculty, who are not only some of the best educators on the matter, but also terrific players.

The concert started off with a tune composed by Fred Sturm and was followed by tunes from Erskine’s background—usually either ones he composed or by the fusion band Weather Report, of which he was a drummer for several years. The first few pieces were played by him and LUJE, showcasing both the preciseness of Erskine’s drumming and professional talent from the whole group.

In the set with the trio, Erskine was able to show off his combo talents. In a combo, there is a heavier emphasis on improvisation and interaction. He was good about staying quiet enough but knew when to draw attention to his drumming, a skill that is rare and difficult to perfect for musicians, especially drummers. He also smiled a lot while playing, showing how important—and easy it is—to enjoy the music you play.

After playing another set with LUJE and finishing with the hit “Birdland” by Weather Report, Jazz Celebration Weekend 2014 had come to a close. It went well, and hopefully taught all of its visiting young jazz bands a thing or two about playing this art form. Regardless, it entertained many listeners. Jazz Celebration Weekend 2015 can’t come soon enough.