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Band director Wes Parker has diligently created a first-rate educational jazz program in the NCSU Music Department. This concert featured the first of two performances by classic big band and combo jazz ensembles. Jazz Ensemble I, a relatively large group of 19 musicians, produced an opening set of four well-rehearsed pieces by relatively familiar composers. Solos from Nick Mazzoleni (trombone) on Sammy Nestico's "It's Oh So Nice" and Gino Cecchi (soprano saxophone) on Luiz Bonfa's classic bossa nova "Black Orpheus" were both skillfully executed. Steven Ray demonstrated his evident superb command of the guitar in his solo on Mark Taylor's "A Waltz for Patrice" as well as his role in the solid rhythm section of Nick Sherrill (bass) and Alex Hornaday (drums). Parker, playing trombone, joined a paired down ensemble for the final piece of the first set, Horace Silver's "Cool Eyes." In addition to Parker's exquisite "professional" solo, this tight smaller group of three saxophones plus the rhythm section allowed somewhat more freedom of expression from pianist Graham Whitehouse and guitarist Ray.
Departing from the published program, the Intermission featured the six-piece NC State Combo with pianist and composer Alexandre Mangot opening the set with his piece "Changing Skies." As well as the piano introduction to the piece, which had a 6/8 feel to it, Josh Beerel (alto sax), Ray (guitar) and Mangot rendered a range of sensitive acoustic dynamics appropriate to the title.
One of the highlights of this concert was the introduction of master drummer Bryan Carter. He was featured on the classic Frank Foster jazz standard "Shiny Stockings." Following inspired solos from pianist Mangot and Reese Wing on the first trumpet solo of the show, Carter delivered a textbook demonstration of how big band drumming is properly executed i.e. with dynamics, musicality, soul, and especially the execution of a solo appropriate to the tune.
Morphing into the second set, several pieces featured the talented reed player Carter Harris on both tenor or soprano saxophones. "Lazy River" (Hoagy Carmichael and Sydney Arodin) – that was not so "lazy" according to Wes Parker! – featured creative solos from both Harris and drummer Carter. Clearly inspired by Carter's drumming, the Jazz Ensemble rose to new levels of inspiration, especially on the pieces "Third Train from the Station" and "Kat's Colors" (both composed, impressively, by student Carter Harris) with solos from Harris on saxes; even Parker was inspired to contribute some fine trombone work to this septet. Carter stayed on drums for the NCSU Jazz Combo's up-tempo version of "Hamp's Boogie Woogie" (Milt Buckner and Lionel Hampton) with energetic solos from Beerel on alto sax, Ray on guitar, Harris on tenor sax, and Magnot on piano.
At this point the concert reverted to its published program with the ballad "But Beautiful" (Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heussen) and lead alto sax player Staton Michaels educing a moving solo. The penultimate piece "Second Wind" (Steven Feifke) served as the vehicle for drummer Carter. Following evocative solos from Michaels and guitarist Ray, Carter demonstrated his remarkable talent and why he is recognized as a jazz master particularly in educational circles; he exudes the subtle art of developing a melodic, as well as a rhythmic, solo consistent with the music rather than a sole display of extraordinary technique and volume. He received a well-deserved standing ovation following his performance as he left the stage.
"Pythodd Fellows," a composition by John La Barbera, concluded appropriately with the full Ensemble I and solos by pianist Mangot playing electric organ and dynamic solos from Chris Suggs on trumpet, Ray on guitar and Harris on baritone saxophone.
It must be noted that none of the players in the Ensemble I or the NC State Jazz Combo are music majors. This is quite an accolade in this reviewer's opinion!