Saturday night, following my lecture as jazz scholar-in-residence, I attended the final concert by the students of the Brubeck Institute’s 2005 Summer Colony. The Institute staff invited prominent jazz musicians to select the seventeen colonists by compact disc audition from among the best teenaged jazz musicians in the United States and some from outside this country.
Sixteen-year-old alto saxophonist Ben van Gelder came from the Amsterdam Conservatory in the Netherlands. Playing with haunting tonal quality, he invented melodies that incorporated a judicious use of space, and made harmonic choices outside the chords without sounding contrived. He is one of those rare young musicians who establishes his individuality in three or four notes. His work in the student all-star combo nurtured by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen included not only captivating solos but also unison playing of absolute precision. Listen for Ben van Gelder.
Kyle Athayde, the son of a high school band instructor, is seventeen and came to the Summer Colony from Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, across the bay from San Francisco. He is a trumpeter, vibraharpist and composer, impressive in all of those areas. The ensemble played a piece, the sort of thing that used to be called a rhythm ballad, that had such an aura of professionalism about it that until Athayde announced it as “a composition of my own,” I assumed that it had been composed and arranged by someone like Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster or Slide Hampton. His trumpet playing, like that of 17-year-old Gregory Diaz of Los Angeles, covered all of the harmonic, rhythmic and technical aspects required of a first-rate jazz soloist. If they have yet to achieve the level of individualism of Ben van Gelder, so do many players who have been making a living in jazz for decades.
In a few days, seventeen-year-old Katie Thiroux will begin her senior year at the Hamilton High Music Academy in Los Angeles. A bassist, she swings hard, solos well and develops supporting lines that inspire soloists. In the all-star combo, her rapport with pianist Julian Bransby and drummer Steve Renko was remarkable. She and her fellow bassists Nick Jozwiak and Charlie Zuckerman joined in a double bass trio workout on Oscar Pettiford’s “Blues in the Closet.” (Introducing them, institute executive director J.B. Dyas, a bassist, explained to the audience that all you need for a jazz combo is a bassist plus one other instrument.)
Not content to be merely a superb player, Ms. Thiroux sings beautifully, accompanying herself on bass in the manner of Kristin Korb, with whom she has studied. In a duet with Ingrid Jensen, she sang “Close Your Eyes” simply and brilliantly, with a canny understanding of the meaning of the lyrics and their relationship to the melody. She and Ingrid ended the piece with a complex unison line that culminated in a high G perfectly intoned by Jensen’s muted horn and Ms. Thiroux’s angelic voice. Generous and giving, Katie Thiroux is a thoroughgoing musician, the anthithesis of the image of the egocentric chick singer. I hope to hear more of her, for the sheer pleasure of it.
Steve Renko is fifteen. He is from St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio. His drumming is controlled but swings loosely, and he has perfect time. Julian Bransby, the seventeen-year-old pianist in Jensen’s combo, is from Bloomington, Indiana. Both of his parents are professional musicians. Given the quality of his playing, they must be proud parents, indeed.
In Saturday’s post, I mentioned Isaiah Morfin, the shy fifteen-year-old alto saxophonist who played at my book signing. That night, in the big band directed by colony instructor Joe Gilman, Isaiah, who is approximately the height and weight of his baritone saxophone, played a stomping solo awash in rhythmic intensity and tonal variety. On alto, his soloing is incandescent and derivative. On baritone, the real Isaiah seemed to emerge, brimming with confidence. This time, he did not smile furtively when he got a huge round of applause; he grinned, as pleased with his solo as was the audience.
Drummer Harvel Nakundi, a seventeen-year-old from Miami’s New World School of the Arts, is one-quarter Art Blakey, one-quarter Philly Joe Jones, one quarter Buddy Rich and one-quarter sheer exhuberance in search of consistency. He is a riveting drummer now. When he gets his loose ends tucked in, he will be formidable.
Brian Crutchfield, 17, is a towering Texan from Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. His tenor saxophone conception and tone complement his large frame. His solos showed not only an allegience to John Coltrane and Michael Brecker, but also self-editing that allowed his substantial ideas room to blossom. Such discipline is not often a hallmark of post-Coltrane saxophonists.
One of the faculty said of seventeen-year-old trombonist Ismael Cuevas of Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles, “Ismael is basically an ear player—but what an ear.” He demonstrated his harmonic acuity, rich sound and range in several contexts.
I was also impressed with guitarist Graham Keir of Wyndmoore, Pennsylvania, and drummer Max Wrightson of Los Angeles, both seventeen. Sixteen-year-old Woody Goss of Skokie, Illinois, is a pianist of depth that reflects his classical training. Pianist Noah Kellman is fourteen. He just finished the eighth grade. His parents, visiting the colony from the family’s home in DeWitt, New York, told me that when he was five, Noah stood watching as his dad played a simple Mozart piece. He asked if he could do it, too. Indulging the boy, his father helped him onto the bench, whereupon Noah played what he had just heard, flawlessly. Lessons ensued. He became a jazz player at the age of ten. Four years later, he is an accomplished jazz accompanist and soloist.
Nadia Washington is a sixteen-year-old senior at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, the school at which Bart Marantz’s jazz program produced Roy Hargrove and Norah Jones, among others. She sings in a clear voice and loves Ella Fitzgerald. One of her pieces Saturday night was a virtual reproduction of Fitzgerald’s famous “How High The Moon” from a Jazz At The Philharmonic recording, right down to Ella’s ad lib about forgetting the words—a neat trick of imitation, but a trick nonetheless. Ms. Washington’s real singing came with the colony big band on Dave and Iola Brubeck’s “Since Love Had Its Way” from The Real Ambassadors. It was a sensitive and poised performance.
As I listened to the encore piece that closed the concert and this year’s colony, I thought of this passage from the chapter, called A Common Language, in Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers:
Like every art form, jazz has a fund of devices unique to it and universally employed by those who play it. Among the resources of the jazz tradition available to the player creating an improvised performance are rhythmic patterns, harmonic structures, material quoted from a variety of sources, and “head arrangements” evolved over time without being written. Mutual access to this community body of knowledge makes possible successful and enjoyable collaboration among jazzmen of different generations and stylistic persuasions who have never before played together. It is not unusual at jazz festivals and jam sessions for musicians in their sixties and seventies to be teamed with others in their teens or twenties. In the best of such circumstances, the age barrier immediately falls.
The encore was Thelonious Monk’s “Bright Mississippi.” With the colonists and teachers Greg Tardy, Ingrid Jensen and Hal Crook wailing away on the “Sweet Georgia Brown” changes, the barrier was definitely down. All of this may be more than you wanted to know about seventeen astonishingly talented youngsters. I imagine that it is considerably less than you will want to know as the years go by, assuming that the narrow confines of the jazz economy allow them to work as performing artists.