Liberty University competitive musicians participated in the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival in Chicago
Having never traveled to a competition before, the Liberty University Jazz Ensemble made its intercollegiate debut Feb. 21-23, attending the 46th annual Elmhurst College Jazz Festival in the western suburbs of Chicago.
“They (the audience) were very pleased with our performance,” Liberty University Director of Bands Stephen Kerr said. “People went out of their way to say how much they valued our contribution to the festival.”
Kerr characterized the trip as successful on three fronts — experiencing a festival as both performers and audience members, sharing Liberty’s talent with others who have a knowledge of their craft, and learning from and about other groups from around the country.
“We achieved what we set out to do with all three of those things,” Kerr said.
As newcomers to the competition, Kerr and his band selected pieces strategically — variety was a priority. The band played a combination of traditional and avant-garde arrangements, sprinkled with vocal numbers with ties to Broadway and contemporary recording artists. The result was a unique blend of several styles that showcased the band’s wide range of skills.
“We demonstrated a wide pallet of performance,” Kerr said. “Festivals exist so groups can hear new things.”
“Danny Goes to Sowetto,” composed by Darryl Brenzel, was one of the newer pieces that Liberty introduced to the Chicago audience. Kerr said that the score is meant to be a musical interpretation of a young Irishman going to Africa. As such, the piece is a juxtaposition of two different musical genres.
It begins with a lengthy penny whistle solo, which was performed by freshman alto saxophonist Rebekah Neale.
“I had to learn penny whistle from scratch,” Neale said. “It was intimidating, but after practicing a lot, I got more comfortable with it. While Dr. Kerr was introducing me, I just prayed, and it turned out well.”
For Kerr, “Danny Goes to Sowetto” — and namely, Neale’s solo effort — was one of the high points of Liberty’s performance.
“It set an entirely different mood from anything they had heard that day,” he said. “There was nothing like it all day.”
Also contributing a solid performance for Liberty was Jedidiah Bayes, a senior pianist who was given an Outstanding Recognition award for overall musicianship and improvisational performance by the three adjudicators — all of whom have past or present connections to the Count Basie Orchestra.
Bayes was featured several times, with his longest solo being heard during the opening chart, “I Be Serious ‘Bout Them Blues.”
“Jed (Bayes) brings the ensemble together,” junior guitarist Stuart Payne said. “A lot of judges look for that ‘it factor’ — he brings that to the table.”
“He brings a lot of style and awesomeness,” sophomore trombone player Bryan Clark said. “It (the solo) was something that the crowd could follow. It had a theme. It wasn’t just a collection of notes.”
Liberty had a strong showing in improvisation, but Kerr said that he looks forward to improving the talent as the School of Music moves forward with plans to implement a new jazz studies program — possibly as soon as next fall.
What is currently a strength on an individual level will become more of an ensemble strength, Kerr said.
In addition to the traditional big band instrumentation, the Jazz Ensemble featured vocalist Katy Davis on two pieces.
Payne thought the inclusion of a vocalist was a shrewd move.
“The interaction between the vocalist and the band and the vocalist with the crowd was great,” he said. “She (Davis) gave the audience a face and a personality that they could relate to. Rather than picking a face out of a large ensemble, they had one out in front telling them a story.”
According to Kerr, a competitive jazz ensemble at Liberty was a long time in the making. The trip to Chicago was the next logical step in the progression of a group heading down the road toward more serious musicianship and notoriety.
“For a long time, jazz was thought of to be a genre that was not appropriate for a Christian school,” he said.
According to Kerr, the Jazz Ensemble slowly evolved out of the basketball pep band over the course of a decade. Until this year, the pep band and the jazz ensemble were composed of the same musicians. In the fall, the group played jazz concerts. In the spring, the group still played a couple of jazz gigs, but the focus switched to basketball entertainment.
This year, the groups were split to form a dedicated jazz ensemble and a stand-alone pep band. Kerr is pleased with what he has seen in the trial run.
“Both groups have noticeably benefitted from it,” he said.