On the night of Saturday, Nov. 10, toes were tapping and heads were bopping, but not just in Kendall Hall. A stone’s throw away from where the fall concert was held, the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall featured the College’s Jazz Ensemble putting on a stellar performance, the first half of which focused on the music of Count Basie, while the second half showcased visiting bass trombonist James Borowski. Gary Fienberg conducted the ensemble, which featured 20 of the College’s most musically talented.
In between songs, Fienberg related Count Basie’s story. Born in Red Bank, N.J., by 1929 he had moved out to Kansas City — a nascent metropolis marked by competition and brinksmanship in both culture and industry. According to Fienberg, in 1929 jazz had become “part of the conversation,” though not universally embraced. It was here that Basie joined Bennie Moten’s band as a pianist.
Appropriately, the first song performed by the ensemble was “Moten’s Swing” — Basie’s signature song — as a tribute to his roots. Tenor saxophonist James O’Connor, trumpeter Justin Ploskonka and alto saxophonist Eddie Spencer delivered pitch-perfect solos, setting the stage for the sonic wonderland to follow.
The early days of jazz were brutal, with “carving sessions,” essentially heavily competitive jam sessions, that lasted all night. It was here that musicians were vetted, proving their worth and resilience in grueling improvisational contests. Fienberg noted that the jazz ensemble, in learning their songs, would often listen to nearly century-old recordings and try to mimic instrumental solos without sheet music. Indeed, the soloists hit all of the right notes — from Alyssa Aiello’s trumpet part in “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” to David McNally’s bass playing on “One O’Clock Jump.” McNally was part of the rhythm section that also included guitarist Evan Wallach as well as the drum and piano players, providing tempo and foundation upon which the rest of the ensemble could play. The first half ended with “Wind Machine,” which was described as a “barn burner,” and rightfully so — the blustery piece was masterfully played.
The second half of the performance saw the introduction of James Borowski, a renowned bass trombonist visiting the College. His first song on stage, “Bye Bye Blues,” set the stage for the rest of his performance, complementing the rest of the ensemble like a glove fits a hand. The tones of the trombone seemed to fill the air and swirl around: an aural delight. Fienberg — on trumpet — performed a surprise duet with Borowski, as Benny Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” graced the theater. The performance concluded with Borowski’s arrangement of Dizzy Gillepsie’s “Manteca.” This was the first time that the arrangement had been performed, and the tangible swing was in the air. One could not help but conjure images of the dance halls of old, swaying in frenzied clamor to the beat of the big band. Though those days may be long past, on this Saturday night, those in the audience could relive it, if only for a couple of hours.