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Essentially Elegant 

by Michael Bowen

Professor Henry Hill had 76 trombones; Mead's music man, Terry Lack, has only four. But in the Mead High School Jazz Ensemble, Lack also has five saxophones, five trumpets and a five-member rhythm section -- and later this month, he'll be carting all 19 musicians to New York City for the ninth annual Essentially Ellington competition. Mead qualified as one of only 15 finalists from across the nation.

After the initial elation, however, comes the sticker shock. That's why the ensemble is presenting a Mother's Day concert -- a fund-raiser, along with a silent auction -- at the Big Easy. This Sunday afternoon, they'll perform works by Ellington, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.

Performing the Duke's music well isn't an easy task. "It's more difficult than a lot of other big-band music," says Lack. "It's music that's very exposed -- lots of stand-alone parts. There's no safety in numbers -- you're just out there.

"All the under-parts are thinly scored," Lack continues. "Where other composers might write for 13 horns, Duke would write for four. And he'd mix 'em up, writing a part for maybe a trumpet, a trombone and two saxophones -- mixing it up across sections that way."

It's one thing to swing with the Duke in, say, Boise, where the Mead Ensemble recently earned top overall band honors at the Gene Harris Jazz Festival, but it's quite another to play Ellington's music in the Big Apple. Lack has an analogy he's been using to prepare his players for the big trip May 22-24: "I tell the kids, 'Let's assume you're going to France, and you've been studying French for three years. They could understand you over there, but if you tried to go over there as a spy, you'd be found out and caught in a minute.

"'Well, we've studied jazz for three years and interpreted it in our own way, but I want you to play jazz like a pro now. When we go to New York, we need to play so we don't get caught.'"

When it comes to not getting captured, Ron Carter is the just the man the Mead musicians need. Carter, director of jazz at Northern Illinois University and an associate of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, selected this year's finalists and is now traveling around the country providing instruction at several of the schools.

During his visit to Mead last week, at one point Carter stood in front of the high school horn players and broke into a little improvised doo-wop dance, singing scat and egging on the players: "Doo, dee, stanky doo-wop -- we wasn't woppin' there," he laughs. "We all need to wop somethin'.

"C'mon, people, it sounds like you don't know how to swing!" he goes on, seldom allowing the band to play for more than five seconds before calling a halt for corrections. After a brief trumpet solo, the entire band joins in, but Carter calls a stop, yelling "wah, wah... wah, wah... zero dynamics!"

But then he just as suddenly says something encouraging to the group and dismisses them to their pizza break.

Senior Keith Bjorklund, an alto sax player who won one of the best soloist awards at the Gene Harris competition, appreciates Carter's feel for the big-band sound: "A lot of his teaching was about 'pulse' -- about feeling it more, like the music's your own. It's the opposite of metronome accuracy or regularity. It's about what he calls 'greasy sound' -- where you personalize the sound, make it your own. It's not pretty. It's the opposite of 'pretty.'"

Brad Fulkerson, a junior who plays trumpet in the ensemble, was eagerly taking in what Carter had to say about jazz improvisation. Fulkerson and the other Mead players will be called upon to display their improv skills right away, as he explains: "The first night we're there, we're supposed to have studied this set of 12 songs thoroughly, and we'll go in there, and they'll match us up with a Lincoln Center player, and then I might be matched up with a sax player from Seattle and a drummer from Canada or something, and we'll just jam and work on our improvisation skills."

But before the ensemble can get to New York, they need to raise some cash. That's why Sunday's concert will be accompanied by a silent auction featuring autographed CDs, hotel stays, gift certificates -- dozens of items in all, though the marquee auction item has to be an all-expenses-paid weekend fly fishing trip in Boise with Troy McClain of NBC's The Apprentice. (McClain just happens to be Mead Class of '89.)

At least one very qualified outside observer thinks the ensemble will succeed in New York. Rob Tapper, who's director of jazz in the music department at EWU, points to "the high quality of music education in the Mead district. Kathy Meredith at Evergreen Elementary and Lee Shook at Northwood Middle School, among several others, are giving these kids a great education. By the time they get here," says Tapper, gesturing to Mead's music facilities, "they've gotten the passion. And Terry does a great job -- he has them working hard."

So the Mead Jazz Ensemble's being invited to Lincoln Center is like a victory for the entire Mead district?


Publication date: 05/06/04

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