Jazz Orchestra heats up Lorimer Chapel
The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra gave a passionate evening performance entitled “American Panorama,” which shook the walls of Lorimer Chapel.
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On Friday, Oct. 14, the walls of Lorimer Chapel reverberated with the magnificent music of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. The show, entitled “American Panorama,” was, in the words of Director Mark Harvey, “an eclectic mix of the American jazz scene.” The performance was split into two parts: the first contained an array of jazz traditions while the second featured two pieces that paid tribute to historical events.
Currently in its 39th year, Aardvark Jazz Orchestra is a large ensemble that performs both traditional compositions from such American legends as Ellington and Ives, as well as original works from Harvey himself. They have performed at numerous venues across New England, including a past performance at Colby in 2004. Mark Harvey, a professor of jazz studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the director of the Aardvark Orchestra, has composed over 120 songs. Also a talented trumpeter, he has performed and recorded with notable musicians such as George Russell, Baird Hersey and Gil Evans.
The band began with “Down By the Riverside,” a traditional New Orleans hymn-tune. The brass erupted into a jaunty Cajun swing, and the piece followed a steady, booming tempo as the performers skillfully displayed the energy and soul of New Orleans jazz. After the final notes lingered and the applause subsided, Harvey explained how “this nation’s religious history gives us a lot to work with in terms of music.”
Their second piece of the evening was an Ellington jazz staple called “Come Sunday.” From the beginning, the stark contrast between this song and the previous was palpable. From the jubilation of New Orleans Aardvark turned to “Come Sunday,” a low-key, melancholy blues piece with a deep connection to the history of Harlem.
The low hum of the brass and bass wrapped around the cries of the trumpet solos. Suddenly, the music cut to the minimalism of the lone guitar and bass, but the powerful combination of guitarist Richard Nelson’s solo and bassist John Funkhouser’s accompanying strings made for an evocative experience compared to that of the full orchestra.
The piece that followed, entitled “Everyday I Have the Blues,” arranged by Ernie Wilkins, was a traditional, big-band style piece that continued the theme of contrast throughout the performance. From the very first explosive snare hit, the song rocketed forward in a huge orchestral rumble with a grand spirit. All of the instruments were completely brought to life, with the hiccups of the saxophone and the punctuating trumpet blares, all carrying that big-band swing. Even the full force of the drums were showcased in “Everyday,” with drummer Harry Wellot—ordinarily a background presence—taking full control with his solo. The solos truly have the musicians in their elements. It is their moment where they play their hearts out with the melody in the background, and the audience subsequently applauds.
The first part of the show culminated with “Deep River,” the world premiere of an original piece by guitarist Richard Nelson. This gigantic, five-part piece towered over the rest of the performance as the center of the night’s attention. Just before Harvey called the musicians into action, the crowd watched the friendly banter amongst the composer and his orchestra intently. Harvey brought in two singers for this massive piece: Aardvark regular Jerry Edwards and jazz performer Marcia Gallagher.
The first part, “Deep River Blues,” opened with lone flute notes dancing in the air before the rest of the ensemble joined in, powered by a low tuba drone. Gallagher’s low mezzo-soprano voice gracefully guided the band into a traditional blues tune. The second part, simply called “Interlude 1,” was a tornado of flute and tuba, a rapid dance of long held notes dotted with short bursts. It twisted and turned for a few minutes before the tiny flute fury settled, followed by silence.
In the third piece, “Old Country Stomp/Wake Up Jacob,” the flute led into an energetic, foot-tapping rhythm. The guitar and brass sections had a symbiotic call-and-repeat element to them, going back and forth between melodies. Edwards jumped in with a memorable scat singing performance as the instruments wildly changed from one key to the next. The music intensified to a loud pitch until it came crashing down with Edwards’ scream of “Wake up, Jacob!”
The longest, most exhilarating part was the second interlude that followed. It featured a bouncy, classic jazz tune with slight Eastern and Saharan elements. With shrieks from the brass section and an electrifying guitar performance, this was as freeform as freeform gets. It wasn’t about melodies or harmonies—it was solely about making music. Edwards and Gallagher joined together, mimicking instruments in an extremely mellow scat performance—a lull in the music. This was the epitome of jazz.
“Deep River” finished with the rousing “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.” An uplifting conclusion, it was a mighty jazz ballad that had the audience clapping for its entirety. The energy that shone through each musician made it impossible to not groove to it. In total, Nelson’s composition was more than enough to garner the instant standing ovation that it received.
Coming back from the intermission, Aardvark took on a much different tone. The final two songs, “Blood on the Sun/New Moon Rising” and “Peace Soundings” (both composed by Harvey), are less about jazz tradition and more a dedication to tragic events in American history. “Blood” was written shortly after Sept. 11. It was a piece that, as Harvey describes, “moves through rage to grief to healing.” It entered with a drum march introduction that quickly turned into chaos. Harvey played the piano in a ghostlike fashion—hauntingly, without any strict form. The selection featured solos without accompaniment, and it encapsulated an immense raw power—violent trombones, deathly bass, fragile cymbals. The audience sat in awe at the requiem that filled the chapel.
Harvey and his orchestra closed the night with “Peace Soundings,” a memorial to the Civil War, which was composed of three distinct movements: “Longings,” “Reconcilings” and “Jubilees.” The first, “Longings,” was reminiscent of a battle march, with chants echoing from the brass section and the pounding of drums. “Reconcilings” had a much more somber feel to it. A light fanfare emerged from the orchestra as the dust began to settle. The sorrow could be felt from the reverb of the guitar, and the gentle tapping of Wellot’s hand-drum solo. “Jubilees” brought the night to an uplifting close, with a cheerful, samba-esque rhythm centered around the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The band rounded out their performance with determination and closure.
Both acts of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra’s performance met with resounding applause. The entire night was a whirlwind ride through historic American music and authentic jazz elements. Harvey and his musicians put on an unforgettable spectacle of classical and contemporary jazz that exceeded all expectations.