Professor of Music and Director of Kenyon’s Jazz ensemble Ted Buehrer quipped that Albert Einstein once claimed jazz was so bad it would sound better played backwards. In their performance last Friday night, the Kenyon Jazz ensemble aimed to prove Einstein wrong.
The program was entitled “A Celebration of 100 Years of Jazz Recording.” They began in the twenties with Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” and played songs all the way up to today, including a Radiohead cover and an original composition by Jeremy Stern ’19.
The ensemble open with Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues,” a five-person combo piece that represented jazz’s beginnings. Compared to the more modern songs the ensemble often plays, the Armstrong piece was short and simple. The combo imitated the song’s 1920s sound with ease.
Oliver VandenBerg ’20, a trumpet player who soloed during the song, found it easy to adopt this early jazz sound. “The sound is very different,” he said. “I tried to emulate the big Louis Armstrong sound as much as I could.”
“Hottentot,” featuring Brian Sellers ’21 on guitar and Uli Schwendener ’21 playing a synthesizer, resulted in roars from the audience as the two musicians fed off each other’s energy. Sellers took the lead with complex guitar solos as he hunched over Schwendener, who provided the perfect lively counterpart to Seller’s guitar.
To represent 2017, the ensemble chose Jeremy Stern’s “Falling For You.” The piece was constructed around a simple repeating melody, and allowed ample room for Stern’s combo to improvise for long stretches of time. Stern based this composition in the tradition of West Coast jazz and neo-soul, borrowing from the laid-back sounds of artists like Gerry Mulligan and D’Angelo.
The ensemble’s most impressive performances occurred during the big band pieces. This set-up demonstrated their immense dynamic power in songs like Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” Duke Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder” and their cover of Radiohead’s “15 Step.” Soloists often find it difficult to match the volume and intensity of the full ensemble on these pieces. “You kind of have to ride the power of the big band,” VandenBerg said. “To do that on trumpet — play fast and high as much as you can.”