“Every time I sing this song I feel like I just ran the Marathon,” Neha Jiwrajka said. It was April 18, the whole city of Boston had just finished watching that famous race, and Jiwrajka was opening her set with Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne.” She and eight other highly talented vocalists were about to do some musical sprinting of their own in a well played program that evening at NEC’s Pierce Hall. The three ensembles in the program each enjoyed solid support from their own rhythm sections of guitar, piano, bass, and drums.
Free and open to the public, these concerts in Pierce Hall on St. Botolph Street are important. You will see tomorrow’s, and sometimes today’s, professional jazz musicians, not just for Boston, but for the national and international stage. (Remember a young lady named Rachael Price?) You learn who these young artists are, and what’s more, you see them developing. You hear good jazz and can support it – by listening. In an elite school like NEC, that’s not bad for a cheap night out.
Eade, a graduate of NEC and well-known jazz vocalist herself, works hard with her ensembles, all of whose members audition for and are grouped by her and NEC jazz chair Ken Schaphorst. Each group of three vocalists and generally four instrumentalists usually has one singer fronting the band at a time, acting as leader, selecting the material and directing the ensemble. Arrangements may also be written for a group of singers.
But the musical aims are deeper, Eade says. “One of the goals is to open up the conversation between the singers and the rhythm section, and between the individuals in the rhythm section. As everyone learns more about each other and the instruments they play, better musical choices are made and new ideas can come from any corner.”
Eade is also careful to coach with a balance of direction and just letting things develop. “I’ve learned a lot from watching people rehearse their groups. It’s an art in itself,” she feels. “No one wants to feel micromanaged, but it can also be numbing to continue when people have a sense it isn’t clicking.”
And things were clicking at the April 18th concert. Some examples of the fine performances:
The bright, rich bite of Akenya Seymour’s voice punched up her original arrangements. “Just Friends” opened over a light piano riff before she swung the tune. Seymour chose a New Orleans fatback to pump some juice into “Ole Devil Moon,” using off center tight, dramatic kicks to keep up the intensity. After a percussive scat solo, she led the band into a quiet ending.
In Kim Mayo’s rendition of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” a full, mature voice joined with clean diction and tasteful vibrato to convey the meaning of the song. She had the right balance of both connecting with the audience, and looking inward for a deeper interpretation. Mayo ended with a trance reharmonization of “The Very Thought of You” which was all about the groove.
Then, take a young jazz male vocalist. He says to himself, ‘‘Let’s find something interesting for genre. How about a French ballad in three, like Django’s ‘Melodie au Crepuscule?’ Ah, but the intro. Maybe a sax transcription. Of course, the James Carter solo on the tune.” And, voilà, Tommy Boynton let loose on the transcription, and then led the band into French cabaret style accompaniment, exploiting his range from baritone to falsetto. In stylistic and historical contrast, he closed with Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song,” a nice opportunity for guitarist Matthew Delligatti to wail.
Hee Jin Kim used an original arrangement of “Get Happy,” scatting a well-arched solo over a two-chord vamp that drove home the song’s message. She ended with Kurt Weill’s prayerful “Lost Out Here in the Stars,” delivered with solid technique and musicianship, and mature commitment to the song.
There were also good original compositions. Three vocalists added color to the mood piece “A Tree” by drummer Nicholas Neuberg. Shaped by brushes and shifting meters, its impressionistic piano fills and melodic bass solo gave it a floating feeling. Michael Mayo’s spiritual “Echoes of Ulaanbaatar,” begun last year when he was a senior in high school, had the maturity of composers twice his age. Mayo’s vocal lines, both scored and improvised, were interesting and sophisticated.
I wondered how it felt to Eade to watch her students perform in literally the same place she started out. Things have changed a lot, she responded. “At the time I was a student there was no situation like this for vocalists at NEC. I was lucky to be singing in groups with older musicians at the time, people like Alan Dawson and Mick Goodrick, when I was younger,” Eade remembers. “They taught me a lot. It feels great to provide an open environment for people to learn and share their musical ideas like this because the professional world does not always afford this luxury. And you can really tell when the music gets better.”