New Jazz Faculty Quartet’s captivating debut

Sam Lewin

The new Faculty Jazz Quartet gave its Lawrence University debut Wednesday, Jan. 4 in an impressively full Harper Hall. Perhaps one of the reasons there was such a good turnout — in stark contrast to previous faculty jazz concerts — was that this was the first opportunity the Lawrence community has had to see the newest incarnation of the quartet.

The Lawrence jazz program recently hired two new members — saxophonist and Instructor of Jazz Studies Jose Encarnacion, and Lecturer of Music and pianist Bill Carrothers. Encarnacion and Carrothers joined two Lawrence jazz faculty veterans, drummer and Professor of Music Dane Richeson, and Associate Professor of Music and Teacher of String Bass Mark Urness, to form the new, formidable Faculty Jazz Quartet.

Last term there were a couple of jazz faculty concerts but none with the full quartet. Carrothers performed solo at Harper Hall and the Faculty Jazz Trio — the same members minus Carrothers — performed at the Trout Museum. Although many jazz students had heard the full quartet play at regular jazz forums, the broader community had been eagerly anticipating this concert since the decisions to hire Encarnacion and Carrothers were announced.

The quartet began the concert with an Encarnacion original titled “Coffee’s Aroma.” The tune began with a Latin-flavored bass groove, which Richeson embellished with frequent drum fills. Encarnacion then entered with the melody and began an initially quiet solo. He built his solo effectively and expanded on a variety of motives, which he referenced throughout. Carrothers also played a thoughtful and moving solo, which was striking in the context of a burning Latin tune.

I definitely enjoyed “Coffee’s Aroma,” but it wasn’t quite at the level that I expected from such accomplished players. The energy and intensity was not quite there, and the groove was a bit unsettled throughout most of the tune.

However, the quartet did live up to the audience’s exceedingly high expectations as the concert progressed. They brought out special guest cellist Matt Turner on the second tune, Urness’ “Free Psychic Reading,” which began with Encarnacion and Turner playing the melody over Richeson’s up-tempo swing. “Free Psychic Reading” also featured trading between Encarnacion and Turner at the end of the tune; their collective improvisations were impressive and seemed to inspire a more dynamic rhythm section.

One of the highlights of the concert was another Urness composition titled “Cat’s Cradle.” The tune began with Richeson using one of his trademark techniques — holding two sticks in one hand with a marimba-like grip—to play incredibly fast notes on the hi-hat, while holding down the rest of the groove with his other three limbs.

Carrothers’ solo on “Cat’s Cradle” was particularly memorable; it was extremely well-developed and featured some absolute shredding towards the end. “Cat’s Cradle” was captivating, but more importantly, it showed how much of an asset this jazz faculty is to Lawrence. Hopefully, we will have the opportunity to listen to their deep, grooving and inspiring music regularly.

Although the very beginning of their show was a bit lackluster, the quartet quickly developed an identifiable and grooving sound that captivated the audience. The audience was enthusiastic and receptive, which was especially impressive given some of the quartet’s more “out” music.

It will be exciting to hear the faculty play later in the year as they develop musically and acquire more experience playing together. And given the success of their Lawrence debut, it would not be surprising if large audiences turn out to see future shows as well.