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The Modern Jazz Generation was founded in 2013 by a core group of senior musicians consisting of pianist Marcus Roberts, bassist Rodney Jordan, drummer Jason Marsalis and tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley. On this night at Memorial Hall as a part of Carolina Performing Arts, they were joined by the seven other members of the group in an integrated style of collective improvisation. This blending of younger and older musicians upholds the long tradition in jazz of benefiting from the collective experience, but usually it is in smaller ensembles, for example in traditional or Dixieland jazz groups.
The evening's concert consisted of two sets and was weighted to blues-oriented pieces, if not strictly blues in the technical sense; this is not surprising since historically jazz itself has largely evolved in conjunction with the blues. Roberts displayed his extraordinary dexterity and innovation at the piano both on the classic opening bebop piece "Filthy McNasty" by pianist Horace Silver, and similarly by opening the second set with the Earl "Fatha" Hines composition "Birds and Thirds." Co-founder Riley was a commanding presence throughout the concert, but particularly on these two opening tunes. Marsalis (his father is pianist Ellis Marsalis and siblings are Trumpeter Wynton and saxophonist Branford) exhibited total integration and dynamic sensitivity to the music especially on his solos in both sets. A pleasant surprise was Roberts' inclusion in the trumpet section of Jim Ketch, UNC's longtime Director of Jazz Studies and former Chair of the Music Department; it was impressive to hear him blend seamlessly with the band regulars on trumpets, Tim Blackmon and Alphonso Horne. Horne, who was one of Roberts' students, is a remarkable soloist who is able to extract the most dramatic sounds from his horn (pun intended!). Plus, he served as an enthusiastic "master of ceremonies" for the band. The brass section was completed by the subtle trombone work of David Harris.
It was a little disappointing not to hear more soloing from the other co-founder, bassist Jordan; as the "hub" of the rhythm section, it was not until the second set that Jordan played a very subtle and articulate solo on the Cyndi Lauper standard "Time After Time." One of the younger members of the ensemble, baritone saxophone player Tissa Khosla, played an energetic solo on the one piece at the end of the first set that could be deemed "modern" – a hip-hop tune entitled "Tomorrow's Praises." Ricardo Pascal (tenor and soprano saxophones) and the laid-back playing of Joe Goldberg (alto sax and clarinet) in the reed section gave a unique flavor to the sound of the band.
An additional surprise feature was another guest from UNC – Artist-in-Residence tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens – who performed a delightfully soulful solo on "Being Attacked by the Blues."
Roberts also did not fail to impress with his ambidextrous and dynamic skills particularly on a solo piano piece (untitled) in 3/4 time. In the second set, the "Modern Jazz" concept of what has sometimes been referred to as "choreographed (musical) chaos" or "free jazz" was introduced in a clever (token?) way; all twelve musicians played randomly for several minutes, abruptly stopped, then morphed into a standard 12-bar blues format complete with solos and 4-bar interactions with each other, including a particularly exquisite drum solo by Marsalis.
The Generations covered were from the early 20th century, for example a King Oliver blues, to present day Hip Hop. Whether the latter can be considered "modern jazz" is debatable. However, in the words of one of the musicians "we are playing (all our) music today so it is Modern" (sic).
Interestingly, after a well-deserved standing ovation at the conclusion of the concert, for an encore the band played the only Latin piece of the evening – a composition entitled "El Bozo" by Chick Corea that was recorded by him in 1977. Altogether a fine concert played by enthusiastic and innovative musicians.