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Review: Jazz Arts Academy Students Take the Stage at White Chapel Projects

Joe Muccioli

May 9, 2024

Jazz Arts Academy students perform at spring showcase.

Each season the non-profit Jazz Arts Project presents a showcase concert with students in the Jazz Arts Academy program. This is a year-round offering for students 13 – 18 who wish to study jazz music with an intense focus on improvisation, music theory, performance practices and the history of what many consider America’s classical music.  The showcase performances are usually presented in a professional music venue in front of a live audience of family, friends and the general public. This past Thursday evening was just such an event.


This time the organization choose the Long Branch music venue WHITE CHAPEL PROJECTS.  With almost 20 student musicians, the evening was an inspiring journey into the future of jazz.  No Virginia, jazz is not dead. These young people will keep it alive.


As the doors opened, the audience poured into the event room of this rustic, reimagined industrial factory building in the heart of Long Branch.  They found their seats among large communal tables and quickly filled up the room so much so that additional seating had to be brought in to accommodate the crowd.


Soon a small group slyly took their positions on stage and began playing, laying down a groove setting the scene for the jazz coolness that would follow.  Without any introduction or fanfare, it was suddenly apparent that this would be a special evening with some great music shared by some talented kids.  The groove morphed into the Joe Henderson jazz standard “Recorda me” which translates from the Portuguese as “remember me”.  In a spontaneous move one of Jazz Arts’ instructors joined in. The piano trio was listed as Val Rualo on piano, Vince Lenza - Bass, and Brennan Sodano - Drums, however, as we later learned, Pianist Rualo was not able to appear and would be replaced by former Jazz Arts Academy graduate Kenny Blake


Education Director Kiki Rausch welcomed everyone to the event. She introduced Education Coordinator Zach Lorelli along with two other teaching artists, Jazz musicians Anthony Ware and Anthony Nelson Jr.


A small group identified as the “Jazz Lions” continued their set led by Mr. Ware, a noted jazz saxophonist in his own right.  They dove right in to some serious high level jazz tunes with this more experienced group of mostly graduating seniors. 


The first tune was by Julian “Cannonball” Adderley entitled Wabash. They ran through this so smoothly and confidently you might close your eyes and imagine yourself in a smokey New York City jazz club in the late 60’s perhaps.  Next up was Hocus Pocus by Lee Morgan, then an addition of Sean Weinperl on Bari Sax for the next two songs. A tribute to Duke Ellington in this year that would have been 125th birthday of this jazz master musician and composer with Take the A Train.  Although this tune was composed by Ellington’s cohort Billy Strayhorn, it was closely associated with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for many years. Finishing up their set these young lions gave spirited contemporary take on the Cedar Walton tune I’m Not So Sure.  The performance was a clear nod to the late Roy Hargrove and his unique treatment of the tune.

During the short break giving time to re-set the stage for the larger group, Education Coordinator Zach Lorelli  along with instructors Ware and Nelson addressed the crowd. They spoke about learning jazz and the difficulties and rewards that is consistently evident by our students.  How even if these young musicians don’t go into a full-time career in music they may very well continue to play and certainly listen to jazz as an adult.

The balance of the group took the stage and formed what could only be described as a big band.  Almost a full complement of Saxes, Trumpets, Trombones and Rhythm section players.  Jack Pellegrini, Eli Zolotnisky, Reagan Gaborow, Evelyn Knox, Liam Roy, Sean Weinperl, Charles Snider, Sara Alexandre, Andrew Changchien, Sal Torres-Nasher, Stephanos Tsompanidis, Ambroise DeQuillacq, Beckett Pell, *Kenny Blake, Vincent Lenza, Gregory Noll, Ruby Silverman, Tudor Barcan and Brennan Sodano formed the large ensemble and promised to shake the rafters with the great music to come.

This larger group did not fall short of that goal. The first selection was Lady Bird; a tune by Tad Dameron which has become a real bebop classic. It is an extremely simple and compact piece, consisting of only 16 measures in which, however, a lot happens.  After stating the melody—a happy jaunty toe-tapper where the whole batterie of horns is supported by the relentless driving rhythm section—a section of improvised solos continues. Soon enough a “shout chorus” ensues with a new yet related melodic treatment before revisiting the original melody to end the tune.

Then an unexpected surprise began when one (of three) individual bass player, Vince Lenza, played a little musical phrase.  Within a few seconds a second bass player, Gregory Noll, reared up as if saying hey what about me? And then the two of them played the phrase as a duet.  Halfway through the third bass player, Ruby Silverman, joined in and created what I can only describe as a “3 bass hit”.  The tune was Birks Works by Dizzy Gillespie and the arrangement, while spotlighting the three bass players, involved the whole ensemble in a fun way.

Next up is Shiny Stockings, a tune written for the Count Basie Orchestra by the late saxophonist Frank Foster.  This arrangement is quite close to the original treatment for Count Basie and is a quite difficult challenge for any high school group, but these students did it justice indeed. 

Certificates were presented to each of the students along with a trophy for each of the graduating seniors now forever known as “Jazz Arts Academy Allstars”.

One thing to point out:  A large part of jazz is improvisation within the confines of a song-form and harmonic structure.  It invokes freedom of expression, which relates to American democratic ideals. Freedom within the social confines and laws.  In jazz, this involves learning elements of music theory and performance practices that is not often emphasized in traditional music programs. It was evident here that this program offers this training effectively.  And to be sure, just about every student played a solo during the concert.  And, we are told, that is no small feat for young musicians who prior to this Academy experience, had never played an improvised solo.

Finally the Jackie McLean tune Midtown Blues with its opening fanfare, the stops and starts of the melody, and the blues form wrapped up a wonderful evening.  It was great music by a bunch of talented high school students participating in the Jazz Arts Academy. Kudos!

No Virginia, jazz is not dead. These young people will keep it alive.

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