Review: Oberlin Jazz Faculty Concert

By Max Newman

Nothing brings out feelings of bliss quite like a performance of live jazz. These displays, when performed with exceptional proficiency, soothe the soul. For those who funneled into Finney Chapel on the evening of February 19, the Oberlin Jazz Faculty concert that they were about to witness would have this effect, and more. 

This was truly a brilliant performance. Given the personnel on stage, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Saxophonist Gary Bartz, drummer Billy Hart, and trumpeter Eddie Henderson had played with greats like Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders, and Herbie Hancock during their storied careers. These musicians have outrageous amounts of experience. Yet to witness their playing live was astonishing.

The performance was of a collection of tributes to jazz legends McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, who several onstage had played with during their pomps. One of the things that stood out was the ability of the instrumentalists to give emotional justice to these arrangements while also clearly having fun. Bartz would go from giggle-whispering with Henderson behind the mics one second to producing a mind-bending solo the next. It was impossible for the packed crowd not to get swept up in the jubilant musical atmosphere. 

From start to finish, the instrumentation was impeccable, from the piercing horn lead on the opening arrangement of Elvin Jones’s “EJ’s Blues” to the frenetic, dissonant harmonies on the final arrangement of “Three Card Molly.” You really could not pick out many flaws in this performance.

Hart showed unbelievable energy for a man of 82 years, with mesmerizing fills and a driving tone, attention-grabbing qualities you can hear in many of his students. Bassist Gerald Cannon laid out some lines infectious enough to make you want to squirm with joy, especially in the grooving “Home” and “Blues In Minor” (Both originally by McCoy Tyner). Trombonists Chris Anderson and Jay Ashby also crafted elegant solos that drove each arrangement forward. Meanwhile Henderson was as stellar as ever during his own terrific soloing, passion exhibited all over his ever-frowning face. Even saxophonist Chris Coles and vocalist La Tanya Hall showed off their jazz chops with aplomb, albeit only featured on a couple pieces each — Coles, with technically superb sax lines, and Hall, with a stunning, rich vocal tone and delivery. 

For all the brilliance on stage, perhaps the main stars of the show were lead saxophonists Bartz and John Petrucelli, and pianist Sullivan Fortner. Bartz exhibited his well-known talents excellently. His control of tone was remarkable, and his musical knowledge and ability to create seemingly impossible harmonies come to life was especially apparent on McCoy Tyner’s “Contemporary Focus.” Petrucelli also wowed with a more note-heavy, chaotic soloing technique that resulted in countless moments of musical brilliance. His solo on “Ej’s Blues” was particularly jaw-dropping. Fortner was just beautiful to listen to, hands gliding effortlessly over the keys to create gorgeous harmonic patterns. He soloed like he had all the time in the world, and it was wonderful to hear. 

For all the night’s fantastic moments, one really stood out. Late in the set, hand drummer Weedie Braimah entered the stage to enthusiastic cheers from the audience. Braimah, a perpetually smiling and expressive man, spent the last couple songs engaging in a thrilling hand drum display, with complex and syncopated rhythms that boggled the mind. All the while, Braimah’s emotive face almost called out at you, “are you hearing this? Isn’t this just so incredible?” And it was. A terrific moment that encapsulated the freeing, cathartic performance.

This was a concert that soothed both the ears and the mind. An instant pick-me-up. A musical performance that never stopped impressing.

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