My friends in the “jazz is dead” camp often pose two rhetorical questions in defense of their position: Who will want to listen? and Who will want to play this music?
The answer to the first is unknowable, but the second question will be answered in the most unequivocal way Saturday when NYO Jazz makes Tri-C’s Metropolitan Campus Auditorium the first stop on its inaugural U.S. tour.
NYO Jazz is one of three national youth ensembles created by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. Gathering 22 musicians ages 16-19 from across the U.S., NYO Jazz is an elite training orchestra that offers high-level instruction and performance opportunities under the direction of a player who is no stranger to the Tri-C stage, trumpeter and Warren, Ohio native Sean Jones.
The tour begins a month after June 24 release of the NYO’s first full-length studio album, We’re Still Here, which features the 2021 edition of the band with Jones and guest soloists Melissa Aldana on tenor saxophone and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon (a review is below).
“It’s a really elite bunch, and they play like nobody’s business,” said Terri Pontremoli, director of Tri-C JazzFest in telephone interview earlier this week. “It’s so exciting to see, and it’s important for us to be one of the people in the Midwest that say, hey, we want to present them. We want to showcase them. We are about jazz education. We are about fostering this music. We are about remembering [jazz’s] history, but forging ahead, We’re about this, This is us.”
Pontremoli’s assertion can be taken literally. Opening the concert are students from the Tri-C JazzFest Academy under the direction of Dominick Farinacci, the northeast Ohio analogue to the NYO project. Young players considering a career in music can look to the example of the two directors. “Both Sean and Dom came to our program years ago as young boys,” Pontremoli said. “They studied with Steve Enos, and they played in the Tri-C Jazz High School All-Stars. Now you see them go full circle: being the teachers, passing it on, never forgetting their training. They haven’t forgotten that wonderful experience that comes from having professional musicians share things with you, that idea of somebody opening a whole world just by saying those three words: check this out.”
Here is the list of the players you can check out at Saturday’s concert:
Ebban Dorsey, alto, Baltimore (18) *
Kaela Seltzer, alto, Los Angeles (18)
Zachary Levin, tenor, Arlington, Virginia (18)
Lucas Netto, tenor, Miami, Florida (17)
Noa Zebley, baritone, Concord, California (18) *
Jonah Hieb, Seattle (17) *
Joel Newell, Ocala, Florida (18)
Levi Rozek, Noblesville, Indiana (16) *
Skylar Tang, Foster City, California (16)
Nathaniel Williford, Kissimmee, Florida (17)
Andrew Zhang, Sammamish, Washington (18)
Andre Perlman, Miami Beach, Florida (16)
Melvin Nimtz, New Orleans (18)
Henry Price, bass, Arlington, Virginia (16)
Maurice Chakour, guitar, Jacksonville, Florida (17)
Maurice Mosley, guitar, White Plains, New York (18)
Brandon Goldberg, piano, Miami, Florida (16)
Alexander Perry, piano, San Francisco (18)
Laura-Simone Martin, bass, Lawrence Township, New Jersey (17)
Lorenzo Wolczko, bass, San Carlos, California (17)
Matthew Fu, drums, Houston, Texas (18)
Benjamin Schwartz, drums, Maplewood, New Jersey (16)
NYO Jazz with Sean Jones, July 30, 7:30 p.m., Tri-C Metropolitan Campus Auditorium, 2809 Woodland Ave., Cleveland Ohio. $20 general admission, $10 for students with valid ID, available here. Masks are optional for all audience members, staff and technical personnel, in accordance with College policy. Free parking is available in Lot 5 off Woodland Avenue.
Listening to the NYO
We’re Still Here, NYO’s first recording, could serve as an audio syllabus for a survey course of the big band traditions and techniques that every young player should absorb, from Ellingtonian tone-painting to airborne New Testament Basie band swing, from how to keep a ballad moving to the disciplined roar of a of a shout chorus. But if We’re Still Here is an effective textbook for aspiring musicians, it’s also a fun spin for jazz fans–and at 96 minutes for the expanded, digital-only version, a generous one, too.
That version begins in the heart of the repertoire with Duke Pearson’s 1967 arrangement of “A Taste Of Honey,” a sleek swinger that instantly establishes the technical bona fides of the high-school-age players. They don’t just play stock arrangements, either. Since 2018 the orchestra has commissioned a jazz composer to write for the band, and these charts, “Run with Jones” (Miguel Zenón), “Mr. Jones and Co.” (Ayn Inserto), “Fête dans le Tête” (John Beasley) and “RPM’s” (Igmar Thomas), make no concessions to youth. Full of slashing cross-rhythms and challenging ensemble writing, they are remarkably well played by the NYO band. As you might expect, the young players are at their most persuasive in collective settings; their distinctive solo voices are a few years away. That’s fine, because We’re Still Here features some ringers to handle the solo duties, including director Sean Jones on trumpet, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, herself a teenage prodigy, and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, whose call-and-response party-starter of a title tune must have been a high point of this session. Still, “The Art of War” features an exciting aerial dogfight between members of the trumpet section and everyone gets their two choruses of fame on “I Be Serious About Dem Blues,” a digital-only track by longtime Tri-C JazzFest standout John Clayton.
We’re Still Here was recorded last summer with the 2021 NYO, which as a training orchestra, has a new class of aspirants every year. Only four members of that recording band returned for the 2022 tour, and it will be fun to hear just how far those young players have come in the last year. If you attend Saturday’s concert, you might want to hang on to your program, too. Chances are that some of the musicians you’ll see on stage will still be here decades from now, pushing the music ever forward.