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John Brown, director of the Duke University Jazz Ensemble, has once again made an inspired artistic choice in the selection of a master jazz musician to instruct, encourage and perform with the student jazz big band ensemble. In this case, it was the final performance of the current academic year – appropriately on Duke Alumni Weekend – and the artist was the famed contemporary vibes player Joe Locke.
The first half of the evening performance was devoted to six well-executed pieces before the introduction of the guest artist. Of particular note was a beautifully articulated tenor saxophone solo by Andrew Cooper on the Richard Rogers ballad "It's Easy to Remember." Guitarist Elise Fernandez nicely demonstrated that the instrument can serve also as a very melodic instrument as well as a rhythmic cornerstone within a big band setting. In introducing the 1963 swing ballad "That Sunday, That Summer" (written by Joe Sherman and David Weiss that featured a melodic alto saxophone solo from Brian Weill), Brown took the opportunity to reflect on the history of jazz at Duke, particularly as it reflected on the student participation over the years since the 1930's. This dates to the formation of the "Duke Ambassadors." Alumni include such eminent artists as Les Brown (& his Band of Renown), pianist Sonny Burke, trumpeter and famed recording producer Creed Taylor, and pianist/composer Patrick Williams who has had a sterling career largely in composing music for Hollywood feature films.
It was noted that student-run big bands continued in 1969 as the Duke Stage Band and from 1971-1974 as the Duke Jazz Ensemble. From 1974 to the present, professional musician-educators have led the Duke Jazz Ensemble. These bands continue to be open to all students regardless of their major fields of study.
Locke began his performance in this single two-hour show with a tribute to Terry Gibbs, his mentor on the vibraphone. He demonstrated his largely 4-mallet style of playing with great aplomb on the classic Brazilian dance piece "Tico Tico" written by Zequinha de Abreu. While this tune has taken many forms over the years from the Cha-Cha to modern jazz to rock, the Bill Holman arrangement is largely a swing piece with Latin overtones.
This was, in fact, an ideal format for solos within the ensemble, including a particularly dynamic trombone solo from Jeremy Liang. However, it was the original piece for solo vibes written by Locke ("Sword of Whispers") that articulated his unique mastery of harmony, melody and rhythm on his instrument and the technique necessary to accomplish it.
Similarly, the unusual pairing of the vocalist Julie Williams with the vibes in a duet was a unique setting for the young Williams to display her mastery of the classic piece "I Remember You" composed by Victor Schertzinger, and indeed the vibraphonist's skill and sensitivity of accompanying a singer.
The selection of the classic Charlie Parker blues/bebop tune "Billie's Bounce" was a good choice for a number of outstanding solos from the ensemble, opening with a highly articulate piano introduction from Riley Mangan, a melodic solo from Andy Cooper on tenor saxophone, and an energetic and soulful one by trombonist Justin Bryant.
The concluding piece of the evening was the appropriately named "Flying Home" composed by Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman. (Brown noted that Hampton had bequeathed an endowment to Duke to support education in jazz studies.) Solos abounded and included Brown, playing bass on a couple of choruses to honor his first music teacher, Mrs. Ellington. Drummer Chris Cook added the requisite rhythmic pulse to this high energy, concluding piece. Locke once again demonstrated his unparalleled technique and sensitivity, which amply justify the Penguin Encyclopedia of Jazz bio that describes him as "(in) the select group of contemporary vibes players, Locke has claims to head the list."
The two-hour set precluded the possibility of including an encore. Too bad!