Jazz director John Brown chose to open this concert with six classic compositions featuring only soloists from his current Duke Jazz Ensemble while devoting the whole second set to the guest master drummer Ulysses Owens. This gave the audience, who consisted mainly of family and friends of band members, an appreciation for the musical level to which they have aspired. For example, vocalist Emily Dean had an opportunity to demonstrate her “scat singing” abilities on the classic “Lover Come Back to Me” (Oscar Hammerstein & Sigmund Romberg). Brown was also able to introduce some rock-solid Count Basie-like feels in Thad Jones’ “Quietude” that was most effective and well implemented by the band. For the completion of the first set, it was a particular pleasure to listen to a solo from the excellent guitar player Larry Zheng on “I Get a Kick Out of You” (Cole Porter). The drum setup was of standard design, had not been modified in any material way and was played to good effect in the first set by the Duke Ensemble’s drummer Charles Pinckney.

The second set opened with an upbeat version of “Soul Leo” (Mulgrew Miller) featuring Owens. There were a few modifications in the drum set-up consisting of various tom-toms, a snare drum, a kick-drum plus several cymbals; these enabled Owens to implement and demonstrate his unique style of drumming that followed the melody and/or improvisations using sticks or brushes on the rims or the heads of the drums. His technique added rhythmic patterns to the melody or chordal structure to the piece being played by the other members of the band; thus, the drummer contributes directly to the soloist or the melody in a unique “percussive” way.  In other words, the percussionist doesn’t merely keep time but becomes an integral part of the melody as well. While this is not a new concept this reviewer has not heard or seen it implemented with such gusto and swing as shown in this performance. Similarly, Duke tenor saxophonist Andrew Cooper turned in a swinging version of “Alabama” (John Coltrane).

At one point, John Brown stepped out of his band director status to take part in a duo on his bass with Owens on his drums. The tune was an up-tempo version of “Girl Talk” (Neale Hefti) and was a unique interlude, only possible because both had superb technique on their respective instruments!

Once again John Brown, as director of the jazz program and Professor of the Practice of Music, has brought world class music to Duke and Durham. He will be finishing the current season by bringing the legendary jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer to Duke to spend time with the students and give a concert in Baldwin Auditorium on Friday April 17 at 8 p.m. See our calendar for details.