With odd serendipity last December, UCSB Jazz Ensemble’s fall performance happened to follow—by only a few hours—the passing of legendary jazz composer and pianist Dave Brubeck. No programmatic tribute could possibly be arranged, of course, on such short notice (although bassist Miller Wrenn briefly quoted the theme from “Take Five” during a solo that evening). That peculiar coincidence, and the weight of the loss of so great an American artist, clearly played on the mind of director Jon Nathan during the intervening weeks. The result was “Oddly Enough”, an imaginative and ambitious winter concert of tunes and arrangements in uncommon time signatures.
Anyone familiar with Brubeck will appreciate the tribute. His 1959 album Time Out introduced original tunes in 5/8 and 9/8 meter —“Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk”—that were not only palatable to jazz lovers, but became mega-popular hits. UCSB Jazz Ensemble not only visited these two tunes in big band arrangements, but also drew material from Charles Mingus, Maria Schneider, Pat Metheny, Don Ellis and more.
Nathan’s creative direction finds ways to include varying ability levels among students, while at the same time showcasing the more developed soloists. Small ensemble “combo” performances are inserted between big band numbers. He also encourages initiative among his students—one fine combo independently transcribed and rehearsed Christian Scott’s Litany Against Fear. Overall, this was an engaging concert of well- and lesser-known works, with performers clearly energized by an enthusiastic audience. And through it all, time was stretched and morphed in unexpected meters. The evening opened—in 7/8—with the big band playing Hank Levy’s Samba Siete. Dave Holland’s Processional in 5/8, and a work by Maria Schneider that sliced up 11/8 into two patterns followed this.
Parallel sax work by Jonah Tarashansky and Kevin Albers throughout the night was outstanding, with expert syncing of the complex lines in Charles Mingus’s Boogie Stop Shuffle. The airy idiom of Pat Metheny was captured in a fantastic big band arrangement of First Circle; saxophonist Joe Farey moved through the changes with great sense of narrative. Pianist Tim Cunningham channeled Dave Brubeck with authority in an inventive Latin arrangement of Take Five, which also featured great soloing by saxophonist Eric Hu. But no matter how you manipulate it, even the oddest time eventually runs out. We’ll be counting the rests until the Jazz Ensemble’s spring performance.