Coping with crisisThere was unusual happiness on campus over the weekend. Music was in the air — jazz music, that is! The 44th annual UNC Jazz Festival opened on February 19 with a concert by UNC Jazz Combos and ended with a concert given by distinguished faculty, guest artists and led by Professor Stephen Anderson. The players were: Stephen Anderson, piano; Rahsaan Barber, saxophones; Baron Tymas, guitar; Jason Foureman, bass; Dan Davis, drums; Juan Álamo, percussion; and Al Strong, trumpet. The concert was streamed from Moeser Auditorium on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill on February 20, 2021.

Instituted by the recently retired Jim Ketch during his first year as music faculty at UNC, the festival has become a high tradition for student musicians, teachers, faculty members, guest artists and of course, the listeners. Anderson carries the torch with this labor of love.

This culminating event was originally meant to be a kick-off performance. But Mother Nature interfered and jazz players being flexible, adapted with grace. They played a wonderful mix of tunes beginning with Thad Jones’ “Three and One.” Strong and Barber performed in individual sound booths. But that didn’t matter. Thanks to Jesse Moorefield and Jay Harper; and with the miracle of modern technology, these guys made it work. The effect was seamless. The camera and mic work were great and the ensemble played with exceptional finesse.

Having more time allotted to solo rehearsal due to the pandemic, each player brought a new level of perfection to the mix. Anderson created exuberant solos with rhythmic, color and stylistic contrasts that he changed on a dime. Álamo’s vibe playing was, at times, so fast, that I could only see a sweep of the mallets. And the five-star closing duo on “Three And One” for trumpet and tenor saxophone brought me to my feet.

There were new compositions by these performers. Álamo’s “Strolling” featured a lovely tune introduced by the bass. Foureman’s tone was beautiful. But Tymas’ versatile guitar playing really stood out for me. I pictured families, dressed up in their finest, walking down boulevards in Spain on a spring evening; a colorful Latin tradition. “Show Yourself” by Tymas also has a great melody; the players took full advantage. And Barber’s “Quarantine Queens,” from his soon to be released album, Mosaic has all the elements of a classic. Barber refers to it as a “chill tune.”

“A Beautiful Friendship” was a nostalgic choice for this occasion. Jazz professionals will tell you how often their collaborations grow deep connections. Álamo and Anderson’s short duet touched me, and Davis’ sensitive drumming brought it all altogether. Speaking of friendships and colleagues, Anderson and Foureman played “The Touch of Your Lips” from their album Duo (2020, Summit Records).

The outstanding ensemble wrapped up the one-long-set with a new piece Anderson wrote for the Dominican Jazz Project entitled ” Pero aun es el fin.” Inspired by Matthew: 24, the English translation for the title is “But the End is Not Yet.” Anderson speaks with humility about his work (he says his Spanish is improving). Barber gave him a “shout out” for his years of work on a project that includes artists from the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

The high energy of Strong and Barber coupled with, Latin rhythms and inclusion of congas (played by Álamo) gave this piece a sense of optimism and joy. I closed out my computer with a smile.

Want to be part of the production of Rahsaan Barber’s new album, Mosaic? Click here!

Another shout out to guest artists and virtual coaches for the high school students – Roland Barber, trombone and Nathan Warner, trumpet.