Jazz Ensemble Celebrates 10 Years of Commissions
Issue   |   Wed, 03/26/2014 - 00:34

Few small college music departments have the chance to debut a new piece by a celebrated composer. Next week, the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble will celebrate 10 years of commissioning original works from well-known artists.

The McBride ’59 Jazz Celebration will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the McBride Commission Series, named for alumnus and jazz musician Robin McBride ’59. McBride and other alumni will return to Amherst next weekend to hear the latest commission in the series and to honor the history of big band jazz at the College.

The event will kick off on April 4 with a performance by the Amherst Jazz Orchestra, a group of professional musicians who will be playing the nine previous commissions in the series. The following day will offer students, alumni and local jazz enthusiasts the opportunity to attend workshops and lectures led by alumni and other musicians.

The celebration will wrap up that night with a concert in which the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble will play the latest commission, “10 for Ten” by Jeff Holmes. In addition to being a respected composer and performer, Holmes is the Director of Jazz and African American Music Studies at UMass Amherst.

“It’s amazing that we’re able to get him to write something for a school our size,” said Will Savino ’14, president of Jazz@Amherst, the jazz organization on campus.

The commission series has its roots in a legacy of student jazz at Amherst that extends as far back as the 1950s. During that decade, underground jazz groups formed on campus including one group managed by McBride. Faculty and students put their support behind a more formal jazz studies program beginning in the 1970s and 1980s.

Since then, the College has hosted concerts by a host of big-name artists, including legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. More recent concerts on campus have featured groups such as The Bad Plus, the John Hollenbeck Large Group and the Dave Holland Quintet, as well as individual performers such as Vijay Iyer, Ruddresh Mahanthapppa and Gretchen Parlato.

According to Bruce Diehl, the College’s Director of Jazz, the idea for the commission series came in 2004, when the work done by the jazz program sometimes received less attention than concerts by the orchestra or choral society.

“We initially started the project to try to increase awareness of what we’re doing in the department,” Diehl said. “It was trying to increase our presence here, and also trying to increase our audience size.”

Diehl said that in addition to filling more seats in Buckley Recital Hall, the commission series allowed the jazz program to increase the range of its repertoire and to establish a valuable connection between performers and composers.

“The composer would send us bits and pieces before sending us the completed work,” Diehl said, describing the typical process for previous commissions in the series. “So we had direct contact with the composers throughout the process.”

The past 10 years have brought a wide range of commissions, from darker pieces like Earl McDonald’s 2010 “Smoke & Mirrors” to more lighthearted works like Frank Newton’s 2009 “The Art of the Matter.”

“We give very few guidelines to the composers,” Diehl said. “We do tell them about the strength of our performers. Generally the question of lead trumpet range comes into play, and who are our great soloists. But beyond that, I try to let them do their thing.”

For some composers, the series has earned them praise far beyond the walls of Buckley. The 2012 composer, Christine Jensen, reworked her piece “Blue Yonder” for a professional band and included it in her new album, which has won several awards. Just last month, she and her sister played the piece at the Vermont Jazz Center.

“She’s really getting the mileage out of that,” Diehl said.

Another piece, David Springfield’s 2006 “The Art of the Matter,” was well received by a Chilean audience when the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble went on a concert tour to Valparaiso, Limache, Casablanca and Vina del Mar.

Diehl acknowledged that it is expensive to commission new works, but he said that the College gets its money’s worth in the end.

“I love having off-campus people come in and bring what they have to our students,” Diehl said. “There’s a kind of energy that exists with that, and the students in the ensemble sit on the edge of their seats a little bit more, they sit a little taller and they pay a little bit more attention when they know they’re doing a world premiere.”

Jamie Sandel ’17 contributed reporting.