The first big band concert of the season for the Thompson Jazz Studies Program will feature a couple of familiar faces in new roles—along with new twists on old, familiar tunes.
On Thursday, Oct. 12, Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Paul McKee directs the Concert Jazz Ensemble, CU’s premier jazz group, while jazz trombone doctoral student David Smith conducts Jazz Ensemble II. Both leaders are planning programs that touch on the many different styles that defined the genre, leading all the way back to the 1930s.
“The history of jazz is a pendulum,” McKee explains. “When big band dance music was popular, the music primarily focused on dancers. Then the musicians got restless with the conservative format and started to focus more on soloing and improvisation, which became the bebop style. But that, unfortunately, alienated audiences, so the pendulum swung back to cool jazz, and on it goes, back and forth."
In his debut at the head of the Concert Jazz Ensemble, trombonist McKee wanted to bring a bit of his own jazz history onto the Grusin Music Hall stage. The program he chose includes a balance of more structured, traditional big band music balanced with contemporary styles and compositions.
“There will be something for everyone. I’ve toured a lot with big bands, and the thing that’s so cool about the style is that the arrangement is consistent every time you play a tune, but there’s always a section devoted to improvised solos, which will be different every time. It’s a great way to break people into jazz.”
In addition to his own arrangement of a piece by jazz pianist Don Pullen, McKee will lead the ensemble in his original composition “The Messenger,” a tribute to trumpeter Woody Shaw. “The piece has a lot of energy and excitement to it, and I’m excited to play it and feature one of our trumpet soloists,” McKee says.
Also on the Concert Jazz program is “A Prayer for Lester Bowie,” written by band member Hugh Ragin in homage to the avant-garde trumpeter.
Standards from “The Great American Songbook” pepper the set for Jazz Ensemble II. Band leader David Smith, in his final year of doctoral studies, says the crowd will probably recognize some favorites from Duke Ellington and Richard Rodgers, but there will be a different spin on the classics.
"Most of the tunes we’re playing were originally written in 4/4 swing, but we’re changing the style and the feel,” Smith says. “The program features different types of jazz such as funk, samba, bossa nova, swing and blues.”
Trumpet soloist Andrew DePree is featured in “I Remember Clifford,” a ballad written by Benny Golson for trumpeter Clifford Brown, while a number of different musicians get a chance to show off in John Fedchock’s “Blues for Red.”
“Fedchock is a well-known trombonist who did a master class at the College of Music last year. This is a blues piece with a good swing to it that features an open section where we’ll give the musicians who haven’t had a solo a chance to be featured.”
McKee says the concert should be a satisfying combination of music that is both interesting and entertaining for the musicians as well as Boulder’s dedicated jazz crowd.
“We have a fairly consistent and varied audience,” he says. “A lot of people think of big band as their grandparents’ music, but as jazz evolves, big band music takes on more aspects of world music. And that’s basically what jazz is: a blending of different cultures.”
The Thompson Jazz Studies Concert Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Ensemble II take the stage at Grusin Music Hall on Thursday, Oct. 12, at 7:30 p.m. The concert is free and open to the public. Find more information at CUPresents.org.