This spring has brought the pleasure of numerous events at UNC Greensboro, and it is wonderful to report that the School of Music, Theatre and Dance goes from strength to strength. The unsuspecting listener attending the Miles Davis Jazz Festival, as the evening’s event was titled might expect a program dedicated to some fact of the trumpeter’s oeuvre – rather, the UNCG jazz program is named for Davis – the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program (so named because of the gift to the university of the trumpet used to record the classic “Kind of Blue”). Instead, the program presented two aspects of the art form.

First up was a set of small group jazz, in its most pared-down presentation – saxophone accompanied only by bass and drums. Leading the ensemble was tenor saxist Chad Eby, who teaches in the MDJSP, and who was the incarnation of ultra-hip, accompanied by visiting instructors Rodney Whitaker, bass, and Bill Campbell, drums. It’s safe to say that none of the three are household names, not even Whitaker, who has played with just about everyone (his bio includes dozens of familiar names, including Joe Henderson, John Lewis and Dizzy Gillespie, just among the elder figures). Eby (who just turned forty) and Campbell both studied at the University of North Texas jazz program; Campbell is presently based in Brooklyn, where he plays a wide variety of genres, not only jazz.

Their forty-five minute set included four tunes, opening with the little-known “Introspection” by Thelonious Monk (NC native). Eby has an original voice on the sax (not so easy after sixty years or so of “mainstream” jazz), leaning more toward the cool and quizzical than the hot, and eschewing any sounds that might point toward the singular genius of the tenor, John Coltrane. The second number was an equally unknown ballad by Ellington, “Low Key Lightly”, where Eby displayed a beautiful singing tone (a notable moment was a cascading run downwards in pianissimo). The ensemble playing between the three masters was impressive, given that this is not a working group. “Raise Four,” also by Monk, was a blues with a head that was nothing but tritones (as one might expect from the title), and Campbell’s solo was a very tasty confection of rolls. The set concluded with the famous “Giant Steps” by Coltrane (also an NC native), though spending most of his adult life in Philadelphia. Eby’s solo was the most intense of the evening, and made me wish that this ensemble might have taken their improvising a little farther outside, into more dangerous and adventurous territory (think George Adams, or Pharoah Sanders, or The Fringe…). All in all, this was music so good that fifty years ago these players would all have been touring instead of holding down university teaching jobs. But that’s where jazz is in 2013.

Although jazz trios and quartets have a hard time finding a niche at this point (probably the closest place that an NC jazz fan can hear the few remaining such playing is Washington DC – I am unaware of any nightly jazz club offering touring ensembles to our audiences), the big band seems to have achieved immortality in moving from the popular forum to the college campus. On the second half of the concert the UNCG Jazz Ensemble I, directed by Steve Haines, offered nine tunes, seven of them penned by the visiting soloists, and all seven of these in arrangements for the big band by current or former students at UNCG, showing an impressive level of skill both in arranging and playing. All of the soloing was compelling, and the petite vocalist Lauren Seay made a striking impression, with a beautiful tone, clear, and pure, on “Song for Myself” by Haines. Seay still has a shy presence on stage – she has absolutely nothing to be shy about – she will go far, if she chooses. J.P. Taylor also shone in his soloing on flugelhorn. The evening ended on an up-note with an entertaining and funky arrangement (by Chris Gelb) of Campbell’s “A Lickin’.” 

Note to UNCG administrators, state legislators, the Governor: UNCG’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance is a treasure. Do whatever is necessary to see that they keep up the good work. We in North Carolina deserve an institution with this level of commitment and excellence.