Jazz Fest Blows Cool

Christopher Arnott PhotoThe second annual Jazz Festival at Yale, a new and welcome wintertime tradition on the university’s campus, matched the weather we’ve been having lately: It blew cool, changed quickly and unpredictably, and sent shivers up your spine.

This is only the second year of this ambitious student-run festival. The weekend gathering offers concerts, master classes and a place for area jazz lovers to hang out for it. It takes advantage of alumni connections, the organizers’ enthusiasm for up-and-coming jazz artists of all stripes, and the thriving jazz scene that has existed on campus (and in New Haven at large) for years.

One of the artists who played last year’s festival, Vijay Iyer, was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant just a few months later, so obviously whoever’s booking this thing has their jazz-loving ear to the ground and can sense who’s breaking through. This year’s line-up included a seasoned jazzman, saxophonist/flutist Paul Lieberman, who kicked off the fest with a Friday night concert (alongside the Yale Jazz Ensemble) and a wide-ranging Saturday afternoon master class, as well as two young upstarts: steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho (who played Saturday afternoon) and organist Cory Henry (performing as a duo with drummer Carlin White Saturday evening).

The Andy Akiho concert, at 4 p.m. on a chilly Saturday, was both low-key and spectacular. “He’s going to have you thinking hard and rocking out at the same time,” predicted the student introducing Akiho’s band.

From the first notes, you knew that this was a combo intent on breaking molds. Every member of the quartet was being particularly, peculiarly percussive. The drummer, Tyshawn Sorey, used his whole small kit to make big and various sounds, reaching forward at times to bop the front of his bass drum, and even turning the dropping of a broken stick into a percussion opportunity. Marimbist Ian David Rosenbaum had the largest and most expansive instrument, but sought not to upstage the others, providing subtle and complex marimba backgrounds instead. Bassist Daniel Samuel Suggs, a current Yale School of Music student who has performed with both jazz and classical chamber groups, tapped on the bridge of his instrument a bit for effect, while also providing a solid foundation for the more clattery contributions of the others.

Amid this inspired rumbling of stick and strings, Andy Akiho—whose natural grace, amiability and ability to look super cool in a gray suit is reminiscent of the dapper movie star Joseph Gordon-Levitt—was a most effective leader, especially given his unusual choice of solo instrument. Steadily invoking key melodies and repetitive musical phrases on a shimmering steel pan drum, he firmly ran the show while giving everyone on stage room to improvise. When Suggs found a place in one of the numbers to ride a blues bass riff for a while, Akiho watched approvingly, beaming like a proud father.

“A lot of pieces we’re going to do tonight are based on colors,” Akiho announced. The band began with beige, then moved on to “pink, basically” and later orange.

For one tune, Akiho changed the pitch of his steel pan with small magnets. “So if it sounds out of tune,” he said, “it’s supposed to be. Sorey augmented the unusual arrangement by playing small gongs, one of which gave off an almost siren-like rasping sound. Elsewhere in the concert, the inventive Sorey accented the beats by waving a piece of sheet music loudly into the microphone.

Given the instrumentation, it’s notable how little of the set had a Caribbean sense to it. This was very much an out-jazz exercise. Classical undertones were much more present than the sort of tinny tunefulness many casual listeners
associate with steel pan drums.

Akiho noted that many of the compositions this quartet was playing had originally been written for other instruments—piano, cello and others which were not at all involved in this performance.

At one point, Akiho pulled out a piece he’d created for grade school students he’d taught in Crown Heights, New York, a community that’s familiar with both jazz and calypso. The composition became the wildest workout of the afternoon, starting with an almost minimalist beat then quickly speeding up and deepening, allowing everyone to solo and building in volume and harmony as it went on. As far afield as it flew, the oft-raucous piece kept returning to a signature four chord bit gently played by Akiho himself. Catch the opening minute of it in the video.

Immediately following that stunning display, the other three musicians left the stage for a minute and Rosenbaum switched instruments to a single trap drum, accompanying the sampled, furiously mangled audiotape of a woman’ s voice for the bizarre and riveting “Stop Speaking.”

The second annual jazz festival at Yale closes Sunday afternoon with Andy Akiho leading a master class. Or rather, another master class. His concert had already been one.

The festival is remarkable for how it brings visiting jazz visionaries together with keen students and creates transcendent sounds that stand on their own as great concert experiences.

Last year’s inaugural festival felt more community-driven since it partly took place off campus, at the jazz-friendly Episcopal Church of Saint Paul and Saint James on the corner of Olive and Chapel streets. But the more academic, less spiritual seeing of Yale’s Sudler Hall (where four of the 2014 festival’s five events took place) didn’t hamper the vibe at all. The audience was as diverse as for any jazz concert in the city (except of course the ones held on New Haven Green). Yale music profs, members of the local not-for-profit Jazz Haven organization, experimental rockers, children, teens, the middle aged and the elderly were all spotted among the 100 or so people in the audience.

The Jazz Festival at Yale has wasted no time in becoming a major annual campus event. The student group that organizes it, the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective, also runs regular monthly jazz concert series during the school year, boasting the same mix of professional groups and student talent. Held in the intimate Saybrook Underbrook Theater, the “Jazz at the Underbrook” series continues this year with the Marty Eisenberg Trip on Feb. 28, Brian Kane and Hans Bilger on March 28, the Russ Becker Trio and Saybop on April 11 and the Ethan Kyzivat Trio plus Keren Abreau on April 25.


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posted by: DanielSuggs on February 9, 2014  6:48pm

My name is actually Samuel! Not Daniel. Thanks for the article!