As Gary Fienberg, the College Jazz Ensemble’s director, said, the night’s theme was dance.
“We’re going to talk a lot about dancing,” he said before the band played “Smoke and Mirrors,” a funk number composed by Mike Tomaro.
Fienberg and the Jazz Ensemble, a 20-piece big band, took to the Main Stage in Kendall Hall Friday night for a diverse seven-song set, plus an encore, that featured a pair of funk pieces, as well as music from the Caribbean.
Fienberg gave the history of each song before it was played. His explanation for “Smoke and Mirrors” was particularly ominous. He said funk was characterized by “evil, blues-sounding bass lines,” bass lines that “want to kill you.” From this, dance music arises.
Bassist David Ortiz, freshman music major, lived up to that introduction. The rhythm section was rounded out by Caryn Feder, senior music major, who picked up a cowbell for the song, one of four percussion instruments she took a turn on.
Richard Risden, sophomore music major and lead trumpet, started the song up front and led off with a smoky solo on a muted trumpet, true to the song’s name. The smoke cleared as Alan Rigoletto, sophomore music major, dropped a heavy guitar line of only a few notes. His lines turned lighter as the song went on, teasing quick phrases out of his guitar.
Matt Gramata’s soprano sax solo went along the same lines at first. The sophomore music major played a few long notes that petered out into multi-note bursts. Playful at first, he let loose, going wild before handing the reins back to the rest of the band.
Fienberg occupied himself on stage by clapping along with the music and snapping his fingers, declining to play the ringmaster. He preferred a different term: “I am Dr. Gary Fienberg, master of ceremonies – head clown of the circus, so to speak,” he said by way of introduction. One thing he never did was wave a baton – Fienberg said in an interview before the show that a big band doesn’t need much conducting; the rhythm section keeps the band in line.
On “San Juan Shuffle” the rhythm centered around drummer Joseph Ketterer’s bass pedal. Ketterer’s not even a student here – he’s a sophomore at Nottingham High School and sophomore music major John Ketterer’s younger brother.
“He’s been filling in all semester,” Fienberg said, “and he sounds like a seasoned pro.”
As Fienberg said, the rhythm in “San Juan Shuffle” is straight out of the Dominican Republic, and it shares genes with the merengue. Fienberg shuffled his six-foot frame into a brief demonstration of the dance.
During the song Feder, situated behind Ketterer, had maracas in one hand and kept slapping her bongos with the other. As the song went on, her bongos and Ketterer’s drums went back and forth after Steve Voelker, sophomore music major, put his fingers to work on a tenor sax solo punctuated by blasts of trombone and trumpet.
The night reached its climax on “Latin Injection.” All five sax players soloed – first Gramata, then Voelker, then Jordan Smith, senior music major, then Kate Maiuro, senior music major, then the older Ketterer, then back to Gramata and so on around and around until they all started playing at once, kept together by Ortiz’s steady bass. The band followed the lead of pianist Dave Schuster, sophomore economics major, who started the song off accompanied by appealing melody lines from the trumpet section.
Before the night was over, Fienberg had one more trick up his sleeve: an utterly planned encore. The band sat motionless after the last piece in the program and the audience was still seated before he asked, “Do we have time for one more?”
As the band played the encore, “Groove Merchants,” Fienberg exited stage right to get the audience’s point of view. What he and everyone else could see was a young band, anchored by many sophomores, with plenty more fine performances to come.