As the campus begins to come alive with activity again while the winter draws to a close, the Brandeis University Jazz Ensemble brought forth a performance that was surely as unprecedented as the latest bout of inclement weather. Scheduled for this past Sunday, amid the general hubbub of Admitted Students Day, the ensemble’s semester show, “Spring Swing Dance,” drew in a considerable amount of prospective students (and their parents), who were interested in seeing first-hand what musical education at Brandeis has to offer. In fact, the performance was so desirable to witness, it was perhaps the most people that regulars at Slosberg Recital Hall had seen all semester.
As is suggested by the name of the show, the performance featured the works of many jazz musicians who made significant contributions to the swing genre, including greats like Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and even the “King of Swing” himself, Benny Goodman. Unbeknown to many attendees was that Brandeis’ own Swing Club was going to perform alongside the ensemble. Adding to the already exceptional playing of the student musicians was a group of students who were not just phenomenal in their footwork, but also exuded a sense of pure elation for their talent that quickly spread throughout the hall. Not only did the dancers add to the visual interest of the show, they also played a crucial role in putting the music of the ensemble into a historical context, thereby enhancing the overall effect of the entire performance.
One of the first pieces performed, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” by the Tommy Dorsey Band showed the slower, lilting side to swing music, featuring principal soloist Jordan Kaufman ’19 on the trombone. Playing almost exclusively in the upper register, Kaufman demonstrated his virtuosity through a combination of tactful glissando and his unwavering embouchure. The song also featured measures of fluid saxophone parts in between the soloist sections of the piece. Though not as upbeat as its predecessors, the piece certainly added a nice break for the dancers from the high-intensity of the two previous Goodman-style pieces.
Featuring the fantastic, woodwind extraordinaire Billy Novick, graduate student Eric Elder and Aaron Goodwin ’18 on clarinet, the ensemble again performed another unique style of swing with Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche.” Beginning with a screeching clarinet trio accompanied by the suave responses of a plunger-muted trumpet, the song instantly captivated audience members with its driving rhythm that eventually transitioned into a more traditional swing-style piece as it progressed. Though it featured a large portion of solo time from each of the clarinetists, the growling solos of Yoon Jae Lee ’17 on trombone and Noam Cotton ’17 on trumpet surely played a crucial role in driving the piece home.
The last few songs again featured the traditional driving style of swing-music with which many people are familiar, with classics like “Sing Sing Sing” by Louis Prima, “Rain Check” by Billy Strayhorn and “Lady Be Good,” by George and Ira Gershwin. Not only did these pieces demonstrate the true-to-genre big band style of the ensemble, but they also showcased the abilities of many exceptional soloists, including Garth Retallack on trombone, Mitch Mankin ’16 on tenor saxophone and Moira Applebaum ’17 on piano. Meanwhile, the members of the Swing Club showed just as much diversity among their dancers as the music itself, constantly switching in and out new pairs of partners and even having a few invited members of the audience come down to participate as well.
Ending on the propulsive intensity of “Lady Be Good,” the ensemble and dancers alike earned a well-deserved standing ovation in recognition for the superior musicianship and dedication displayed by the performers. It was hard nonetheless to not tap one’s foot along to the catchy tunes of one of the first truly “American” styles of music. What this performance shows, whether through the dancers or musicians or both, is that true art cannot be confined to and expressed in solely its period of creation, but rather is best enjoyed when it is equally as uplifting and confounding to its creators, no matter how “offbeat” it may seem.