Jazz combos help foster musicians’ artistry, improvisation

Pictured above are John Winton ’16 on sax and Charlie Perkins ’17 on guitar. They are two members of the combo Chuck and the Peanuts, which performed last Friday, Jan. 24 in the Villard Room. Photo By: Sam Pianello
Pictured above are John Winton ’16 on sax and Charlie Perkins ’17 on guitar. They are two members of the combo Chuck and the Peanuts, which performed last Friday, Jan. 24 in the Villard Room. Photo By: Sam Pianello
Pictured above are John Winton ’16 on sax and Charlie Perkins ’17 on guitar. They are two
members of the combo Chuck and the Peanuts, which performed last Friday, Jan. 24 in the Villard Room. Photo By: Sam Pianello

In the 12 years of Modfest, some groups more than others have proven themselves to be particularly well-suited to the festival.

Last Friday Vassar’s four jazz combos, Half Sam, #basedcombo, the Ethan Cohen Octet and Chuck and the Peanuts performed in the Villard Room as one of the principle parts of Modfest.

Open to all students by audition, the Jazz Combo program is designed to showcase student talent in smaller, more intimate settings than the big-band style Jazz Ensemble.

Students also receive encouragement to fine-tune their improvisation skills, one of the important tenants of jazz music, while also having the option to select their own repertoire.

Brendan Blendell ’15 described some of the fundamental differences between the two jazz options offered to students.

“The biggest difference between the combos and ensemble is that the combos are virtually independent, get to choose their entire repertoire, and focus more on improvisation, while the ensemble has a band leader and is focused more on pre-composed big band orchestrated songs,” wrote Blendell in an emailed statement.

The option to choose their own music is one of the more important particulars to the Jazz Combo program.

Since students do not face the same constraints on the music they choose to perform as the Jazz Ensemble, there is a sort of freedom afforded to Jazz Combo students that suits the focus on improvisation touted by the program.

It isn’t just picking the repertoire that is important—it’s getting to arrange it, too. In a big-band setting, arranging is not a skill performers get to hone. Arranging music gives performers the option to suit the music to their ensemble, which ultimately leads to a better sound.

“The Modfest performance went pretty well, since the combos all played material they had been working on since last semester. While many of the selections were jazz standards[…] each combo had their own unique approach for arranging their tunes,” wrote Blendell.

He went on, “The repertoire ranged pretty considerably, from swing-era hits by Duke Ellington to modern R&B-influenced covers of Lauryn Hill and Fugees.”

Since the combos are designed to give students the option to foster their individual artistry, the number and direction of groups can easily change from year to year.

“This year there are four combos, but the number can change every year depending on how many musicians audition,” wrote Jack Rowland ’15 in an emailed statement.

Blendell agreed. He wrote, “The combo program was originally designed for two combos, though due to increased interest, we’ve gone up to four different groups.”

Directorial discretion is predominantly left in the hands of students as well. To keep students’ artistry as the main focus, their director, Director of Wind and Jazz Ensembles James Osborn, mostly leaves the Jazz Combo students to self direct.

“[Osborn] directs the entire Jazz program, conducting the Big Band and presiding over the combos,” wrote Rowland. “However, it really is the students themselves who direct their own combos; they acquire the gigs, transport the equipment for most of their shows, pick their tunes, arrange said tunes, sometimes even compose their own tunes, and figure out just how to make every song kick major rear end.”

Blendell pointed out that the jazz programming at Vassar offers more than just opportunities for improvisation and artistry. Jazz is an influential genre in the history of American music, and performing and studying jazz gives students a different insight from just sticking to the purely classical.

“Since jazz is one of the many types of African-American music that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it’s very important to understand the social and cultural significance behind it, especially if one wants to understand virtually all contemporary music, popular and otherwise,” he wrote.

As for performances, the Jazz Ensemble typically has two scheduled concerts a year, while the combos have a more fluid schedule for their gigs. Individual combos have any number of gigs based on who reaches out to them.

But the groups do not simply sit around waiting for people to seek their musical services. They have to be on the lookout, too, if they want to maximize their performance opportunities.

Wrote Rowland, “The number of gigs we get during the semester completely depends on who we reach out to and who reaches out to us. As an example, last semester, our combo played about four gigs, though, I’d say if we had gone out for more gigs, we could have easily played between six to nine instead. It’s all a matter of advertising ourselves in the right way.”

For Rowland, participating in the Jazz Combos is about more even than just musical growth, or influential cultural movements.

He wrote, “I think what makes the combos work so well and what makes them worthwhile for me—and I know this sounds like major cheese—is the feeling of family you develop within a group and the chance, once a week or more, not just to play with some of the most talented performers on campus, but also the friends you couldn’t imagine performing without.”

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