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Nieske shines in Music at Mandel concert

By Vinh Nguyen

Section: Arts

February 8, 2013

Silky smooth jazz, good company and the nice backdrop of the Mandel Atrium are a trifecta for the perfect afternoon. Brandeis students, faculty and Waltham residents were quick to discover this during Brandeis’ Jazz Ensemble performance Wednesday. Initially advertised as a performance by the entire Brandeis Ensemble, the show simply featured Professor Robert Nieske (MUS) on the string bass and professional musician John McKenna on the tenor saxophone. Despite the advertisement misnomer, the two professionals dug into classic jazz repertoire, including songs from Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins, to provide a much-needed relaxing soundtrack in the week before midterms.

Having obtained both his bachelors and masters degrees in music from New England Conservatory, Professor Nieske contributes to the vibrant music scene here at Brandeis as an artist-in-residence of the music department. Outside of teaching improv jazz and regularly directing the Brandeis Jazz Ensemble, Nieske has made a name for himself in the world of music, having won acclaimed titles and awards such as Jazz Composers Alliance’s Jazz Composition Contest Winner, Modern Jazz record of the year by Jazz Hot Magazine and being the Boston Music Awards’ nominee for outstanding bassist.

As a seasoned musician, Nieske and McKenna showed their experience and skill through their choice selection of jazz tunes. The duo tapped into the soulful yet bittersweet quality of jazz with one of their opening pieces, “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise, ”from Romberg and Hammerstein’s 1928 operetta The New Moon. The piece relied on smooth baselines from Nieske’s bass that was well contrasted by sharp bites from the tenor jazz, to create a mood of melancholic love. McKenna showed his musical virtuosity in the performance of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” Here, McKenna’s improvisations were natural and fell nicely into the mellow cadence of the bass. Perhaps the highlight of the presentation was Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” where Nieske truly shined. The piece was upbeat and evoked lightness and crisp tones that were refreshing midway through the show from the slower songs that were played.

Nieske’s syncopated rhythms were conducive to head bobbing and feet tapping from audience members. Nieske engaged the audience, introducing each song with an interesting mention of its history. Key motifs of some songs were also explained to help the audience appreciate and understand the underlying composition of each song.

In the penultimate performance, Nieske thanked the audience for coming and enjoying the show. Yet, what was most interesting in his last address to the audience was his gratitude for “listening to live music.” Nieske’s words remind us of how profoundly intimate and honest live music is—two qualities that have become somewhat overlooked by the prominent growth of digital music. In the end, the Brandeis Jazz Ensemble show filled the Mandel Center Atrium with exciting jazz melodies. The presentation reminds us of the spontaneity, expressiveness and enduring power of live musical performances.

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