Searching for the Agnes De Mille Theatre at UNC School of the Arts took me on a crisp walk through campus. Viewing UNCSA’s campus, you can feel the excitement of Fall and the high energy from students. Eventually my feet reached the entrance to the small black box theater. This theater holds an orchestra pit and is used primarily for A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute workshops and the UNCSA School of Dance, but on this night it hosted the award-winning UNCSA Jazz Ensemble.

The crowd settled into the nearly booked space, 177 seats total. They grew quiet in the blackness of the theater as the band walked on, warmed by a colorful backdrop. Instead of lights beaming and blinding the performers, this backdrop sent light onto the audience and created a silhouette of Ron Rudkin and the Jazz Ensemble.

The swing band’s program started with a challenging arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Four.” Afterwards, Rudkin introduced some of the program’s content. The piercing pink backdrop painted the audience a bright hue while the music of Bob Mintzer blasted through the small theater. One student played the güiro with more energy than I thought possible, while another donned an electrifying pink guitar. The ensemble sounded comfortable, extremely full, and balanced. In particular, the brass section had good range and power.

The pink light shifted to red, another cue for the audience as the band sent off a trombone solo on “There Will Never Be Another You.” Trombonist and educator George West arranged this classic Harry Warren song. Based on this performance, West knew how to write for trombones and make them swing! A highlight of the piece occurred when the pianist created a pedal point, building tension between the trombones and rhythm section.

Paul Hanson entered the stage to play his 1961 piece “Janus and Tyche,” arranged for a big band by Bill Stevens, a North Carolina native. Hanson played a seemingly normal bassoon with a special microphone inserted into the bell. In conversation with Hanson afterwards, he said that the mic is transferable to saxophones. “Janus and Tyche” is very modern and could tell a story of the Roman god Janus and the Greek Tyche. Either way, watching an electric bassoon rip through a big band chart in triple meter is a once in a lifetime experience. Some of the melody is doubled in trumpet and bassoon, creating an odd texture. At certain moments, Hanson’s horn sounded like an electric guitar. His melodies sounded similar to Pat Metheny, but on bassoon. Hanson played another original, “Mediums,” and then paused for intermission. A guest flutist joined the band onstage for “Mediums” as well.

The second half of the concert maintained the first half’s energy. Pianist Ryan Mulder was unexpectedly welcomed onstage to play “Wayfinder,” an original he wrote for Hanson two years ago. The piece moves in a through-composed fashion and is written for just bassoon, piano, bass, and drums. As a through-composed piece, “Wayfinder” kept evolving into something else. Since through-composed music contains no repetitions, it can be more difficult to write catchy or impactful tunes. However, this did not stop Mulder. He inserts funk influences and contemporary sounds into this piece. He also studied film at UNCSA which may influence his writing choices/scoring for soundtracks.

The last two songs brought electric contrast. The band played “Anthropology,” featuring sax soli transcribed from a Charlie Parker solo on “Bird.” After “Anthropology,” “Cabeza De Carne” exploded with Latin energy. Humorously, at the end of the latter piece, Rudkin fumbled the mic and dropped it, but the audience assumed it was a proud “mic drop” moment. The band left the stage, but clearly planned to return for an encore. The band’s final song was Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things.” As the guest artist, Hanson could have been featured in the last songs on the program, but keeping him mostly in the first half was an artistic choice that kept the audience on their feet. While the program and instrumentation were quite diverse, the soloists were not. It would have been effective to see a greater diversity of student soloists as well. Overall, the UNCSA Jazz Ensemble played proudly through an entertaining concert that contained a variety of repertoire.