‘Jazz for Justice’ at Hylton Performing Arts Center by Audrey Thornton

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Nearly twenty-five years to the day of passage of H.CON. RES 57 (12/4/87) officially designating jazz as a rare and valuable national American treasure and art form, the George Mason University Jazz Ensemble delivered a flawless Jazz for Justice performance before a rapt audience ranging from elementary school children to mature and senior adults. The 2001 creative brainchild of Edward L. Weiner, Esq., Jazz for Justice grew out of the collaboration between Fairfax Law Foundation and Mason’s Department of Music. Over the last eleven years the fruit of Mr. Weiner’s efforts has garnered growing support from many individual contributors and corporate sponsors, making world-class jazz accessible to Fairfax and Prince William County residents under the auspices of the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, Virginia. Please, please mark your Fall 2013 calendars now for this signature annual event in support of community projects.

George Mason University’s very own Director James R. Carroll, Director of Jazz Studies in the School of Music of the College of Visual and Performing Arts capably orchestrated this versatile Ensemble. To my unexpected surprise, Mr. Carroll introduced each piece with vivid, explanatory details which heightened my appreciation and listening pleasure. Ranging from the ragtime era of the 1910s and early 1920s, to the swing era of the 1930s, through the 1940s to the mid 1950s, and beyond the Ensemble played timeless favorites, “Carolina Shout,” “Daybreak Express,” “Maria,” “The Waters of March,” “Moon Song,” “Blues in Hoss’ Flat,” and “Sing Sing Sing,” among others. Mr. Carroll’s musical experience is far reaching, having played major venues nationally and internationally for many years, all of incalculable benefit in training his talented students.

Of worthy note, I found Guest Vocalist Dr. Darden Purcell’s vocal range and jazz expertise superb. Her voice very capably caressed a mature up tempo, playful rendition of “On a Clear Day” and, in a Spanish/English duet with Guest Voclaist Brazilian-born Gina Mirenda of “The Waters of March,” drew a standing applause. A sought-after clinician and jazz vocal educator, Dr. Purcell’s students have benefitted from her talent, winning “Outstanding Soloist” awards at collegiate festivals as well as Downbeat Student Music awards.

This year’s Jazz Ensemble was composed of saxophonists’ Luis Palacios (Alto I), Cas Harvey (Alto II), Joe Whitney (Tenor I), Kurt Wheeler (Tenor II), and Gerard Johnston (Baritone); Nathan Galloway, Ben Jackson, and Amy Loudin (Trombones; and Andrew Comparin (Bass Bone); Tim Smith, Andrew Velez, Jeremy Yeagley, and Robert McKenney II (Trumpets); and Victor Provost (Steel Pan); Clint Greenlee (Bass); Cristian Perez (Guitar); Graham Doby (Drums); Andrew Flores and Thomas Mirus (Piano). All accomplished musicians, it is notable that a majority of the Ensemble had already earned national and international reputations, having played to audiences in such distant places as China, South Korea, Argentina, Spain, Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe.

High praise to the Saxophone section which skillfully played with vigor and precision “Just Friends” another popular jazz standard written in 1931 by German-born John Klenner, and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Grooving High” reminiscent of the swing bands of the 1930s. Spotlighting Mason senior Andrew Flores’ intricate keyboard talent, I thoroughly enjoyed his remarkable musicianship in playing two different tempos at the same time. Amazing!

The Trombone duet of Nathan Galloway and Ben Jackson was well received. There is something magical about a trombone, in my opinion. Its robust pulsating sound catapulted me back to my childhood when the whole neighborhood would line the sidewalks to enjoy the holiday parade. The Trombone section of artists Galloway, Jackson, Amy Loudin, and Andrew Comparin also showcased an impressive rendition of “Moon Song,” originally written by Rogers and Hart in 1934.

In tribute to the great jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, Mason senior, Anthony Velez performed Duke Ellington’s “Portrait of Louis Armstrong.” Reminiscent of swing era jazz and worthy of note, the Ensemble threw everything it had to offer into “Daybreak Express,” Duke Ellington’s 1933 three minute masterpiece of an express train ride, arguably the most thrilling train ride any one could ever envision musically. Special mention goes to Brian McDonald (Trumpet) of Airmen of Note, the premier jazz ensemble of the United States Air Force, as a last minute substitute, he earned my forever admiration for the mesmerizing notes that effortlessly emanated from his trumpet in “Daybreak Express.” Another piece, “Hubtanium,” an original modern 1990’s composition of trumpeter Kenny Rittenhouse was artfully re-arranged by senior Andrew Velez. Strong trumpet performances were also rendered by Tim Smith, Jeremy Yeagley and Robert McKenney II.

“Blues in Hoss’ Flat” another swing tune written for Count Basie, and performed in 1958, drew audience appreciation and applause for the Ensemble’s efforts. As swing music is dance music, the visceral response of feet tapping and head-nodding was impossible for me to resist. How can anyone not groove or respond to its rhythmic beat? The Ensemble left me wishing for more.

“Hojas Podridas” translated from Spanish means decayed deciduous tree leaves. Hmmm, I wondered, what artistic thoughts inspired such a jazz rendition? I admit to a bit of research after the show. Was it inspired by the original 1945 French song “Les feuilles mortes” (literally “The Dead Leaves”) or the American songwriter Johnny Mercer’s 1947 English lyrics? My question was answered by Mason’s Guitarist Christian Perez’ original solo composition “Where is Perez?” emphasizing “rotten leaves” instead of “autumn leaves.”

Graham Doby (Drums) clearly loves his craft; from the age of nine he notes that it was “love at first sight.” Everyone knows that when the drummer starts drumming, bodies naturally respond to the rhythm. I could not sit still, I wanted more.

“Just Friends” another popular jazz standard written in 1931 by German-born John Klenner, was enjoyed through the skilled dexterity of Mason senior Andrew Flores’ intricate keyboard talent. Also to Mr. Flores’ credit was his solo spotlight performance of another classic of American pianism, James P. Johnson’s 1921 recording of “Carolina Shout” in a jazz piano style known as Stride considered by some critics to be the first recorded Jazz piano solo. The Rhythm Section was fully supported by the excellent musicianship of Victor Provost, Clint Greenlee, Andrew Flores, and Thomas Mirus.

Guest vocalist Ida Campbell, of WPFW Radio, rounded out the evening with a soulful rendition of an all time favorite, “At Last,” written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren.

One half of the proceeds of Jazz for Justice benefit university students studying jazz music and one half goes to support justice education and legislation, in addition to legal services for those who cannot afford to pay. The Fairfax Law Foundation supports the only public law library and legal focused educational programs for school aged children in Fairfax and Prince William Counties.

Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Jazz for Justice played through November 30, 2012 at 8:00 p.m., at the Hylton Center for the Performing Arts, 10920 George Mason Circle in Manassas, Virginia. For future events, check their calendar.

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