Friday night concerts always seem to be a mad dash. Wrecks and splintered lanes throughout central North Carolina jam the motorways. This past weekend, the juxtaposition of Javon Jackson‘s saxophone blowing through my Subaru’s stereo while the surrounding cars were riddled with rage almost had me laughing through the frustration. What can one do to avoid this?

Thanks to organizations taking the initiative to livestream concerts, it was possible for patrons to view Duke Jazz Ensemble‘s most recent performance featuring Javon Jackson live on YouTube, avoiding the packed roads entirely. The quality of the livestream was superb and made for a comfortable Friday night’s rest. Duke’s stage crew made sure everything was set, and transitions made in the video indicated there would be a five-minute wait before the show started. The lighting wasn’t overwhelming and everything flowed smoothly.

The Duke Jazz Ensemble broke into “Movin’ Uptown” by Benny Carter to open the concert. Without an introduction, this was a stark entrance for the audience. A saxophonist, Carter started his career writing for Fletcher Henderson‘s band and could write very difficult charts. This song was no easy task for the Duke Jazz Ensemble to take on. “Movin'” features a lot of unison melody and conversations between the sax and brass sections. With a breath of relief, the band finished this difficult chart, and then the director, John V. Brown, said a few words. Brown discussed his pride for the band and the energy of the end of the semester finals. His attitude sent the band reeling into “Somebody Loves Me,” by George Gershwin. The intensity increased when vocalist Emily Dean stepped on the stage.

Dean was a student involved in Duke Jazz Ensemble but wasn’t able to perform with the ensemble last year due to COVID-19 and has since graduated. Director Brown decided to invite her back on campus to perform with the band. This Gershwin tune complimented her voice and natural phrasing. Dean also got a feature on “Gotta Be This or That” by Marty Paich. Her control, phrasing, and dynamics made for a powerful performance.

Brown selected another Benny Carter tune to open the second half of the concert, “Easy Money,” arranged by Dylan Canterbury & Jeffrey Sultanof. Carter wrote “Easy Money” to be recorded by the Count Basie Orchestra in 1961. It was later adapted for educational purposes and recorded in 1987 for The American Jazz Orchestra.

As the concert evolved, guest artist Jackson was introduced and joined to play some tunes with the band. Jackson toured with Art Blakey, who released over 16 recordings as a bandleader and tenor saxophonist for The Jazz Messengers. Jackson blends traditional and neo-jazz sounds into his work. He is currently working for the YoungArts Foundation and has been commissioned for soundtracks. Throughout the concert, his bright, warm sound felt firmly planted within the band. Jackson’s roots and language (phrases/lines when soloing), showed his diverse background with The Messengers, the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at The Hartt School, and experience touring with Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Joanne Brackeen, Jimmy Heath, Richard Davis, and Curtis Fuller.

An exciting part of this event was hearing the Duke Jazz Ambassadors. Brown stepped out to play trombone on the title track from the Jazz Messengers’ album One By One. This tune was written by tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Jackson has spent a lot of time emulating Shorter from his time with the Jazz Messengers and knows these charts well. The second song the Jazz Ambassadors performed was “In a Sentimental Mood,” written by Duke Ellington. The first recording of this song was in 1935, then it was later adapted for the album Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1963) as well as Coltrane for Lovers (2001). This song is actually steeped in North Carolina history. According to Ellington, he wrote the song in Durham after playing a dance in a tobacco warehouse. After the gig, some people got in a disagreement, and Ellington decided to play the piano to deflate the situation. “In a Sentimental Mood” was then born.

The ensemble did an exceptional job in their performance. Many of these students are preparing for careers outside of music, so to see them perform a challenging repertoire so well was astonishing.

Duke Jazz Ensemble has many concerts scheduled for next semester, which include guest artists such as pianist Chris Pattishall and Ingrid Jensen, who will be certain to play her socks off. These events and more can be found by searching “Duke Jazz Ensemble” on CVNC’s search bar.