Jazz is a genre of music that is easy to recognize but difficult to define. Elements, such as its looser sound attributed to its swing-like feel and the incorporation of blue notes, set it apart from classical music. The true beauty of jazz is the ability of the artist to improvise. Much of the musical composition is a result of the musicians playing off one another moving through the music together. Jazz music also has the ability to incorporate other music genres in its composition. Many times it can integrate rock, swing and Latin beats.
The best place to discover jazz here on campus is the Jazz Band and Ensemble. The two groups are part of the Johns Hopkins University Bands, which also includes the Wind Ensemble, Pep Band, Flute Choir and other smaller, independently constructed groups. The JHU Bands are entirely student-run. The bands include mainly undergraduates with some graduate students. Both the Jazz Band and Ensemble perform traditional and modern big band pieces. The Ensemble is composed of the older, more experienced students. Every year the Ensemble travels to Villanova to compete in the prestigious Villanova Jazz Festival.
Both groups are directed by Matt Belzer, who jokes that though his official title is Director of Homewood Jazz Ensembles, he just "shows up and rehearses." This, however, couldn't be farther from the truth. Belzer has been working at Hopkins since 2000 not only orchestrating the groups, but also arranging and writing pieces for their performances. At Peabody Preparatory, he serves as the Chair of the Jazz Department teaching private lessons on the saxophone, clarinet, jazz theory and jazz arrangement. He is also a member of the UMBC faculty teaching music theory, improvisation, and various jazz courses. After receiving bachelor's and masters of music degrees from Eastman School of Music, a division of University of Rochester, he worked with jazz legends such as Fred Sturm, Bill Dobbins and Ramon Ricker. His students here at JHU praise him for his dedication and energetic attitude. Sophomore Vivek Murthy says that Belzer is "funny, engaging, and keeps us on track. ... He helps us out in whichever way he can."
This past week, the Jazz Band and Ensemble performed their annual spring concert in the filled-to-capacity SDS Room of the Jones Building in the Mattin Center. The Jazz Band, directed by sophomore Blair Johnson, in
cluded thirteen musicians. The band opened with a traditional jazz piece, "Milestones" by Miles Davis, one of the most influential artists in the jazz genre. The piece is up-tempo with a light feel and a walking bass line. It specifically showcases the two trumpets; Graduate student, Peter McPhee had an opening solo on the trumpet and later sophomore, Kevin Dieter, performed a solo on tenor saxophone. Their second piece, "In a Silent Way," by Joe Zawinul, was a combination of rock beats and jazz. The drums and bass lead the movement of the song from a gentle, gracefully flowing beat into a more up-tempo sound. Sophomore, Vivek Murthy was featured on alto saxophone and ***, Vivek Viswanathan was featured on trumpet. "Las Vegas Tango" from Gil Evan's album "Individualism of Gil Evans" smoothly mixes Latin sounds with jazz featuring a flute solo by junior, Lindsy Peterson. The strong bass melody, played by ** Christian Recca, brought a slow and heavy tango sound. "Bright Mississippi" by Thelonious Monk was an up-tempo swing song with again a walking bass line. The highlight of their performance was their final piece, "Hora Decubitas" by Charles Mingus. Belzer and the band completely transcribed the song from scratch by listening to the cassette. It illustrated the impressive talent of both the conductor and the musicians. Belzer announced that the song sounds different every time indicating the importance of improvisation in the piece.
After the Jazz Band, graduate student, Tom Wright, and junior, Jon Kraft, performed a duet on the saxophone and piano. They play an original piece, "Beach Party at the Abyss" composed by Wright. The piece is calming and light with a catch melody.
The Jazz Ensemble came out with a bang playing "Big Swing Face" by Bill Potts. The twenty-three musicians produced a deafening sound in this heavy swing song with a blues pattern. Junior, James McIver played skillfully on the piano, while ***, Paul Angelini, the student director of the Jazz Ensemble, was featured on the alto saxophone. Don Ellis' "Good Feelin'" was in the big band style capturing the soul of San Francisco. The slower, heavier piece featured Tom Wright on the trumpet and, sophomore, Mike Levin, on the guitar. The ballad "Bitter Leaf" by Dirk Fischer illustrated the group's ability to easily transition between more upbeat songs to slower, quieter pieces. Chick Corea twisted jazz with salsa beats in his piece "Spain". The ensemble ended with "Moanin'" another Charles Mingus swing piece. The song strongly featured ***, Adam Bernfield, on the baritone sax. Sophomore, Edwin Cuervo, also was featured on tenor saxophone. The performance ended in a loud climactic crescendo.
Overall, the performance was entertaining and relaxing. These talented students have successfully created an outlet for them to improve and showcase their musical talent. Even those who don't refer to themselves as jazz fans would enjoy the performances of the Jazz Band and Ensemble.