Saddleback Big Band plays a weird and wonderful jazz set

Sean Irwin

Last Wednesday the Saddleback Big Band performed a jazz set at the McKinney Theater. While the band displayed some of the quirks and inconsistencies common to student music groups that play difficult music, the skill of the more experienced players and director Joey Sellers resulted in an enjoyable and entertaining concert.

Jazz has long been defined by its status as an experimental genre, an aspect that tends to turn off many otherwise open-minded music fans.

Jazz can seem almost exclusionary at times: if you don’t like an emphasis on instrumental music, you’re out. If you can’t abide saxophone, trombone, or trumpet music, you’re out. If swing, Latin, or experimental bebop are not genres you enjoy, you’re out. Even within jazz, there is enough variety to make it difficult to assume that just jazz-lovers will enjoy a given piece of music.

The Big Band’s set was more modern and out-there than average jazz, but this weird streak wasn’t a negative. “Let’s face it,” Sellers said after the intermission, “here in Orange County, we don’t often get weird enough.”

The night’s set heavily featured music by saxophonist and composer Doug Stone. The opening piece was standard jazz fare, but it wasn’t long before the experimental weird stuff reared its head. The second piece of the night, “Chaplin’s Hat,” was as moody and disjointed as Chaplin himself.

The third piece, “Carter’s Constituency,” was fraught with internal struggle, literally. Named after musician Ron Carter, this piece featured a “tenor sax battle,” where two band members dueled for tenor sax supremacy with back-to-back improvisational solos.

An audience member shouted a suggestion that the saxophone players instead “have a debate,” which earned an eye-roll from Sellers. Both tenor players, apparently first-year Saddleback jazz students, dueled admirably.

Sellers himself stressed the importance of a solid drummer in a jazz band, and luckily for Saddleback, the drummer for the Big Band was nothing short of excellent. More than simply keeping time, drummer Drew Hemwall made use of his large drum set and a variety of sticks and mallets to perfectly match and complement the rest of the band.

All night long, the drums enriched the texture of the band, making everybody sound better rather than stealing the spotlight. The entire rhythm section, which includes the drums, guitar, stand-up bass, and piano, was stellar.

The pieces increased in complexity and difficulty following the intermission, and thankfully, they sounded just as good as before, and frequently better. Sellers surmised that those who stayed to see the second half must be “hip folk.” The remainder of the audience was able to enjoy the night’s highlight, “Camels.” This title may be a tribute to the Duke Ellington standard “Caravan,” and the very enjoyable musical results support the idea. The post-intermission pieces featured some of the greatest instrumental solos yet, though this may be a simple result of the night’s lineup.

In his introductions of the band members, Sellers mentioned the relative experience of his players, and it is unsurprising that the better solos came from those with more experience. Indeed, one of the younger soloists displayed a bit of inexperience by closing his eyes in the midst of a solo. The bell of the saxophone drifted far enough away from the microphone that Sellers had to lean in and quickly adjust the mic stand so the audience could hear the solo.

Perhaps the most obviously experimental piece came fourth that night in the form of the oddly named “Luteous Pangolin.” A jazz band is generally comprised of a small rhythm section, a selection of five or six alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, four trombones and a similar number of trumpets. But for this piece, the Big Band played everything but the kitchen sink.

Two players produced jazz flutes, the trumpet and trombone players set up tone-altering mutes to their instruments, and one of the sax players switched to the rarely used soprano saxophone.

The drummer employed at least three different sets of percussive instruments, including brush sticks, finger cymbals, and what looked like felt-tipped timpani mallets, each of which provided an immensely different texture for the extensive piece. The baritone sax player played the bass clarinet during this piece. Members of the audience in a position to see this strange-looking instrument would perhaps agree that someone brought the kitchen sink after all.

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