Printed April 16, 2013. Published version here.
Last Thursday at 6 p.m. on the Dobbs University Center (DUC) terraces, April showers gave way to the melodic powers of the Emory Jazz Combos. Originally planned as an outdoor jazz event for the Patterson Pavilion between the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts and the Goizueta Business School, the so-called “Jazz on the Green” had to relocate due to wetter weather conditions.
Fortunately, the change in locale did nothing to diminish the resolve of the musicians whose superior performances proved that improvisation is more than just a musical skill.
The concert was divided into two parts, the first part featuring the Emory Jazz Band and the second part showcasing the Emory Jazz Combos.
Promptly at 6 p.m., the silky smooth sounds of jazz began flowing from instruments sans verbal introduction.
Throughout the show, the musicians quickly transitioned from one song to another, providing themselves only the briefest of pauses to accept applause. It seems that the Emory Jazz groups would rather let their instruments speak for themselves when it comes to music.
Director of Jazz Studies Gary Motley and Emory Jazz Artist Affiliates Chris Riggenbach and Justin Chesarek — on keyboard, double bass and drums, respectively — provided the backbone of the band’s music, leaving the trumpet, trombone and trio of saxophones to administer most of the complex compositional flourishes.
Almost every member of the band became a soloist at some point during the introductory songs. Polished solos were met with smatterings of applause and an occasional cheer from enthusiastic onlookers.
They followed the opening number with an upbeat, toe-tap-inducing ditty that piqued the curiosity of passersby. Many pedestrians aimed impressed facial expressions toward the band and a number of intrigued students stopped to appreciate the live music for a minute or two before resuming their walk through the balmy spring night.
Once the full band had finished their fourth or fifth song (and more than a few audience-members had snapped a photograph of the striking ensemble), it was the smaller combinations’ turn to practice their art.
As it states on the Emory music department website, “the primary focus of these groups is on gaining experience in improvising and soloing for each participant.” The website goes on to cite “individual expression as well as group interaction and cohesiveness” as key facets of the Emory Jazz Combos’ mission. What the online description fails to mention, however, is the pure joy with which each artist plays his or her particular instrument.
The brass instruments were traded out for the softer jazz guitar in this second, more mellow section of the hour.
The guitarist picked out unpredictable melodies on the steely strings of his instrument while saxophone, double bass and keyboard filled in harmonies underneath.
A gentle rain shower and a faint rumble of thunder accompanied this particular set, sending the audience scooting farther under the DUC’s awnings and somehow adding to the peaceful ambience of the event.
The last and smallest jazz combo closed the event with a relaxing, keyboard-heavy lineup that naturally dissolved into the cloudy Atlanta twilight.
Throughout the event, as the hour grew later, more and more people joined the crowd, confirming the infectious power of the art form.
What began as a gathering of perhaps a dozen more musically-inclined individuals swelled to include a respectable group of students, faculty and community members of all ages.
While some braved the pollen-coated chairs and benches, others opted to stand or meander around the terrace, mingling with fellow spectators. The unassuming nature of the music in the latter half of the show encouraged the audience to let loose, leaving people free to chit-chat and enjoy each other’s company. One well-equipped group brought along refreshments in coolers and Tupperware containers, contributing to the pleasant casual quality of the evening.
There will be a second Jazz on the Green at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 25. Weather permitting, it will take place in the open air of the Patterson Pavilion.
The two-part concert series is intended as a celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month (aptly abbreviated JAM), an annual festival in honor of jazz as an extraordinary American art form. The festival, which first began in 2001, is the brainchild of musical historian John Edward Hasse.
The informal vibe of the Jazz on the Green concerts allows for an earnest, unostentatious celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month.
Last week’s Jazz on the Green at the DUC demonstrated that jazz need not be the stuff of department stores, elevators and waiting rooms. It’s a playful, energetic genre, filled with all the rising, falling, snaking and looping of an acoustic rollercoaster.
It commands the ears’ attention without disturbing the mind and, as the highly diverse crowd of last week’s performance can attest to, it brings different sectors of the Emory community together. And that’s surely something to be appreciated.