Large jazz ensembles gear up for spring jazz finale

Tom Pilcher

Last term, the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Band, under the direction of Fred Sturm and Patty Darling, took their captive audience on a musical road trip through time, using the music of the Rolling Stones as their guide. The concerts packed the huge Stansbury Theatre, showcasing the two groups at their finest, even in a nontraditional jazz concert.
For this term’s spring jazz finale, the two groups, along with the Jazz Workshop under the direction of Nick Keelan, will bring everything back home to Lawrence, featuring a challenging, personal selection of pieces.
The concert will be performed Saturday, May 23 in the Memorial Chapel at 8 p.m. The concert features two Fred Sturm compositions: “Street Music,” to be performed by the Jazz Workshop, and “Great Northern Express,” which the Jazz Ensemble will perform.
Sturm described “Great Northern Express” as “a musical tone poem portraying a journey on the famous Great Northern Railway line that stretched from the Great Lakes to the Pacific in the 19th century.”
In addition to the two Sturm compositions, the concert will feature two pieces directed by student conductors: Dan Miles will lead the Jazz Workshop group in “Cubauza” by Michael Phillip Mossman, and Mike McCain will direct the Gary Carney piece “Smoke and Mirrors.”
However, the highlight of the spring jazz finale will certainly be the premiere of “Ernie Banks,” a piece by Sturm’s childhood friend from the Chicago area, renowned New York pianist/jazz composer Jim McNeely. Sturm commissioned the piece last year, and McNeely named it after their childhood hero, the famous Chicago Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks.
The Jazz Ensemble recently recorded “Great Northern Express” and “Ernie Banks” for the Kendor Music Publishing Web site, and according to senior trombone player Evan Jacobson, the recording really put the group in a good place with the songs.
“Recordings have to be perfect, and approaching them with that frame of mind has been great for us,” said Jacobson of the two pieces. Jacobson, a fifth-year senior who has played in a jazz big band each year, added that both tunes are very challenging but also “a thrill to play,” and that “Ernie Banks” is “one of the most challenging charts I have played in my five years [at Lawrence].”
Another particularly interesting aspect of the spring jazz finale will be the addition of four Lawrence French horn players to the Jazz Ensemble for a rendition of Bill Holman’s celebrated arrangement of “Malaguena,” originally arranged for the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
Though the Jazz Band, under the direction of Patty Darling, will not perform any pieces particularly tied to Lawrence, the group still has a very challenging repertoire for the concert.
The group plans perform the Pat Metheny song “Heat of the Day,” which Sturm described as “a virtuosic tour de force for every part in every section” and “one of the most challenging works ever scored for large jazz ensemble.”
As if the challenge of this piece was not enough, the group will also pay tribute to the late great bop drummer Max Roach with a composition by contemporary jazz drummer Jeff Hamilton simply titled “Max.”
With such positive attitudes all around about this weekend’s spring jazz finale, the concert will certainly exceed expectations.
The Jazz Workshop, Jazz Band, and Jazz Ensemble will perform Saturday, May 23 at 8 p.m. in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. The event is free and open to the public.