The 21st annual Cornell University Jazz Festival, directed by Paul Merrill, concluded Sunday evening in a flourish of talent with a concert by the Cornell University Jazz Band and renowned composer and bassist Rufus Reid.
Under Merrill’s snapping fingers, the band opened with an adaptation of the well-known tune “A Tisket A Tasket.” The group swiftly demonstrated its close-knit camaraderie in the calls and answers exchanged among small solos over the well-practiced passagework. Guest singer Tessa Buono supplemented the instrumentals with her perfectly jazzy voice.
Three pieces — “Gerry’s Timepiece,” “Roman Notes” and “Through a Child’s Eyes”— were specially commissioned by the Humanities Center and College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University as part of the “Cultural Corridor” program. Sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, the program aims to commission works that recall, celebrate and demonstrate the stylistic legacy of a jazz artist whose upbringing, education and performance oeuvre took place in the region.
“Gerry’s Timepiece” was written in memory of saxophonist Gerry Neiwood, who perished in a plane crash over Buffalo, N.Y., two years ago. This piece was composed by Mike Conrad, a master’s candidate at the Eastman School of Music, where he plays lead trombone in the Eastman Jazz Band. The plaintive melody was impressively delivered by alto saxophonist Robert Araujo ’15, a member of the C.U. Jazz Band. The song intensified at the most pivotal meter change, taking on the heavy heart of a lament.
Araujo’s talent was further displayed in “Through a Child’s Eyes,” based on a chord progression of the well-known “Infant Eyes.” The piece featured numerous solos by various members of the band, effectively demonstrating the individual talent of each jazz band member. The composer, Joe Riposo, who also directs the jazz studies program and the Morton Schiff Jazz Ensemble at Syracuse University, was in the audience and signalled his approval of Merrill’s work as the audience applauded.
“Roman Notes” was written by former Cornell professor John LaBarbera as a tribute to saxophonist Joe Romano, whose career included major stints with Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra. The piece contained mellifluous alto sax lines as well as an underlying conversation between alternating meters, symbolizing a dialogue between the composer and his subject.
Following the first set, the audience cheerfully greeted Artist-in-Residence Rufus Reid as he casually walked onstage to set up his bass. A humble smile and wave back set the mood for his inclusion in the performance. Since moving to New York City from Chicago in 1974, Reid has toured and recorded with artists such as J.J. Johnson, Art Farmer, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon and Thad Jones. As a member of the B.M.I. Jazz Composers’ Workshop, Reid continues to compose for orchestras and jazz ensembles of various sizes.
After opening with a blues piece of his own, “The Meddler,” while playing a snappy bass line, Reid told the audience how happy he was to return to Cornell for this three-day residency, having previously visited in 2002. After stomping his foot through the first piece, making himself right at home onstage, he remarked, “How ‘bout this band?” It was clear that Reid did not desire the spotlight; he was perfectly jovial convivially playing with the C.U. Jazz Band. After remarking on the erratic weather, Reid established a change of pace in the next piece “Seven Minds,” which was written by Sam Jones. The audience finally got to hear what Reid was really about. After a short bowed opening featuring percussion and drums, he broke into a virtuosic, improvised cadenza. His use of artificial harmonics, modulations of dampings, playful bouncings of his bow — left hand plucking simultaneously — was enough to make even the players onstage shake their heads in dumbfounded awe.
“You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a Reid arrangement of a piece by Don Raye and Gene Paul featured a dynamic duet between Reid and the band’s own bassist Diana Rypkema. This laid back tune mellowed out the audience, while the following song “Fantasy in D,” a Cedar Walton arrangement by Reid, woke them back up with its upbeat tempo. This piece featured ample percussion and striking solos by a sonorous tenor sax and an embellishing piano. The band communicated readily with Reid, and the result was an inspiring synergy between the professional and the passionate.
Before beginning the last song, Reid explained that he thought of the structures of the music he writes as “playgrounds.” He termed one of his first commissioned pieces, “Come Out and Play,” a “fun” one. The piece featured the whole ensemble, with sporadic solos by tenor sax, piano and drums. Audience members uninhibitedly tapped their feet, and the soloists exchanged smiles. To conclude the performance, Reid relayed, “You need to have fun with music. If you can’t, don’t play at all.” And indeed, fun was had by all.