Montclair State University’s jazz faculty held a performance of their own on Jan. 25 as part of the Cali Midweek Series, a forum meant to highlight different parts of the John J. Cali School of Music and give students a chance to learn varied musical perspectives.
The series welcomed a team of talented musicians to the stage: jazz studies coordinator Oscar Perez on the piano, Grammy-winning artist-in-residence Christian McBride on the bass and adjunct professors Alvester Garnett and Steve Johns on the drum set, Bruce Williams and Mike Lee on the saxophone, Bill Moring on bass and Dave Stryker on guitar.
These artists came together to emphasize the uniqueness of jazz and the importance of sharing the genre with others. Lee, whose performance on the tenor sax received a warm welcome each time he returned to the stage, explained how jazz is an expression of American culture.
“It is Black-American music that is played by people the world over,” Lee said. “While other genres have elements of improvisation, this music is the only type of music whose main focus is improvisation. The improvised portions are the focus of our performance. It requires patience, listening, knowledge and deep understanding. It requires the performers and the listeners to be completely in the moment and respond continuously. It is joyful music that deals with the full range of human emotion.”
With the art of jazz musicians being spontaneous arrangements, according to Lee, there was no set rehearsal aside from gathering for a few minutes before the concert and discussing which tunes to play.
And still, the faculty passionately performed five songs one might have guessed took weeks of preparation, with the first being “Bolivia” by Cedar Walton. It’s a soulful tune that immediately had members of the audience tapping their feet and nodding their heads, along with a few eager exclamations.
The same reaction held for the following songs, including the light and airy “I Thought About You” by Jimmy Van Heusen, “My Shining Hour” by Harold Arlen, “All Blues” by Miles Davis and “Just In Time” by Jule Styne.
At times, the musicians were merely tickling their instruments while at others they were applying full force to evoke powerful, dominant sounds. Either way, the four tunes called for all the instruments to beautifully come together while also giving way for certain instruments to find prominence in solo parts of the songs, whether it was Moring’s plucking of the bass, Perez’s swiftly-darting fingers on the piano or Williams breathing life into the arrangements with his sax, before coming together in unison.
Though the volume and distinction of the instruments varied from song to song, the passion among the faculty remained constant. One sweeping glance over each person on the stage showed a range of emotions, from Stryker closing his eyes as he felt the rhythm to McBride’s bright smile and pleasantly shocked expression whenever a fellow musician would let the music wash over them. It was clear in those many moments that the recital was just as much for the performers themselves as it was for the students meant to learn from it.
According to Johns, it was especially enjoyable to play in front of the enthusiastic crowd that attended.
“I’ve been [performing] for so long, and it never gets old,” Johns said. “Playing with the Cali Jazz faculty is always a joy. Some of us have been playing together for decades, and we always have a blast on stage.”
Aside from their zeal, also apparent was the unspoken understanding and communication between the musicians as they performed with frequent eye contact and enthusiastic nods of approval, enhancing the performance and showing it was an ongoing experience no less for them than it was the audience.
This was the biggest observation and reason for enjoyment, according to freshman jazz performance major Benjamin Barham-Wiese, as he sat in the crowd.
“The thing that inspired me the most was the real-time collaboration and musical conversation between the performers, “ Barham-Wiese said. “There was so much real-time connection and presence from each of the musicians, resulting in a true display of spontaneity, conversation and passion.”
This is exactly what faculty members such as Johns hoped the audience would walk away with.
“I hope the audience leaves feeling a sense of inspiration and enjoyment from what we played,” Johns said. “I hope the students feel energized by what they heard their instructors play and want to work harder to get to the next level.”
Students have the opportunity to watch more recitals and performances through the Cali Midweek Series, which happens most Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. at John J. Cali School of Music’s Leshowitz Recital Hall.