Category Archives: Jazz

UW alumna singer records with Grammy winner Roomful of Teeth; Brass and Woodwind Quintets to play at a town near you; Piano lovers’ heaven this Sat. at UW

UW alumna singer making a mark as vocalist

UW alumna Sarah Brailey after a recording session with the Grammy- winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth. From left: Merrill's sound engineer, Cameron Beauchamp, Merrill Garbus, Brad Wells, Taylor Ward, Virginia Warnken, Esteli Gomez, Sarah Brailey, Caroline Shaw, Eric Dudley, Dashon Burton.
UW alumna Sarah Brailey after a recording session with the Grammy- winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth. From left: Merrill’s sound engineer (in blue), and singers Cameron Beauchamp, Merrill Garbus, Brad Wells, Taylor Ward, Virginia Warnken, Esteli Gomez, Sarah Brailey, Caroline Shaw, Eric Dudley and Dashon Burton.

A round of applause for Sarah Brailey, a 2007 master’s graduate who studied with vocal professor Paul Rowe and received the School’s prestigious Collins Fellowship, who has been lately appearing on stages from continent to continent, including New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Barbican in London, and Electric Lady in Greenwich Village. Sarah is a full-time member of the Choir of Trinity Church on Wall Street and has been a part-time writer for the Natural Resources Defense Council (“who are totally supportive of my singing and are willing to let me have a very flexible schedule”). Nowadays, though, singing is taking the biggest role in her life.

Sarah, who received a bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music, is originally from LaCrosse, Wisconsin. While in Madison, she played the role of Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni with University Opera.

Here’s what Sarah says about her work these days: “I’ve been on tour with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and The English Concert, doing Handel’s Theodora. Among the incredible soloists are David Daniels, Dorothea Röschmann, and Sarah Connolly. We have been to Sonoma and Costa Mesa, California, Chapel Hill, and will have concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Barbican in London, Town Hall in Birmingham (England), and the Théâtre des Champs Élysées in Paris.

“This season, I had the immense pleasure of performing Britten’s Les Illuminations for the first time with Novus NY. Read a review here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/09/arts/music/handels-messiah-at-trinity-church.html

“I have recently started working with legendary composer John Zorn. This past summer, we premiered his “Madrigals” at the Guggenheim Museum.” Wrote the New York Times’s Steve Smith: “Those singers and three more — the sopranos Lisa Bielawa and Sarah Brailey, and the mezzo-soprano Abby Fischer — brought the same exactitude and luster to “Madrigals,” for which Mr. Zorn assembled phrases inspired by reading Percy Bysshe Shelley. Harmonically consonant, often unambiguously melodic and rhythmically effervescent, these half-dozen songs could easily slip into standard repertory.”

(L to R): Aulikki Eerola, Pertti Eerola, and
Three revered musicians from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland will be in Madison and Milwaukee for a one-week residency March 2 – 8 to talk about Finland’s music education system, hold master classes, and perform a concert on March 8 at Luther Memorial Church. Click image to learn more.

“We also sang his piece, ‘Holy Visions,’ based on the writings of Hildegard von Bingen, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of an entire day dedicated to his works that were performed throughout the museum. We traveled to Huddersfield, England to perform both pieces in the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and will be recording Holy Visions this spring.

“I have also worked on and off this season with the Grammy-winning contemporary a cappella vocal group, Roomful of Teeth. The photograph is from a recording session we did in August with Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs at Electric Lady in Greenwich Village. Electric Lady was originally built by Jimi Hendrix and has been used by artists such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Kiss, Daft Punk, and AC/DC.

In March, Sarah will perform Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” down in Knoxville, Tennessee at the Big Ears Festival and also recording with the Grammy-nominated vocal octet, New York Polyphony. In May, she’ll perform with the Trinity Choir and Bang on a Can All-Stars for the New York premiere of Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields,” part of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Celebration.

National alumni, take note! Sarah’s other upcoming performances include:

Feb 26, 5pm, CUNY Grad Center: I’m performing a song cycle by André Brégégère with text by French-Carribean poet Édouard Glissant on CUNY’s Composers Now Festival.
March 4, 8pm, Alice Tully Hall: I’m soloing with The American Classical Orchestra in Handel’s Samson under the direction of Nicholas McGegan.
March 14 in Aiken, S. Carolina; March 16 in Morrow, GA; March 17 at Alice Tully in NYC: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Juilliard 415.
March 29-30: I’m performing Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN.
April 18: I’m performing Josep Sanz’s King Lear with Ekmeles at the MATA Festival in NYC.

Wingra Woodwind Quintet and Wisconsin Brass Quintet on tour to northern Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota


The Wisconsin Idea is alive and well in the School of Music. This week, two of our four ensembles-in-residence will be on the road, offering a wonderful opportunity for classical music aficionados who don’t live in Madison (and we know there are many!) to hear some beautiful music.

Wisconsin Brass Quintet:

  • Tuesday, February 25, UW-Barron County – Fine Arts Auditorium, Rice Lake, WI. 7:00 pm. Wisconsin Brass Quintet, with the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble. Free.
  • Thursday, February 27, Owatonna High School, Owatonna, Minnesota. 7:00 pm. Wisconsin Brass Quintet, with the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble. Free.
  • Future outstate concerts, please see http://artsoutreach.wisc.edu/wis_brass.html
  • In Madison, you can see the quintet perform on March 29, at 8 Pm in Mills Hall.

 Wingra Woodwind Quintet:

  • This Wednesday in Madison, the  Wingra Woodwind Quintet will perform at a new location, Capital Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, 7:30 pm. The quintet will also perform at a special dinner concert at the University Club on May 8.
  • In Ashland on February 28, United Presbyterian- Congregational Church, 7:30 pm. Tickets $15.00. http://www.ashlandchambermusic.org/concerts.html
  • In Three Lakes on March 1, at Three Lakes Elementary School, 6930 West School St. The concert begins at 7:30 pm. Tickets $10.00.
  • More information: http://artsoutreach.wisc.edu/wingra.html

Meanwhile, here in Madison we have a few special events on the docket for this weekend and next week….including the Pro Arte Quartet’s world premiere of String Quartet No. 3 by Belgian composer Benoit Mernier (read this week’s story by local blogger Jake Stockingerand a residency by three musicians of the Sibelius Academy, in Helsinki, Finland. That residency begins with a master class for singers and collaborative pianist on March 2. Read more, including the complete schedule, here.

Piano Extravaganza! to feature well-known pianists as well as rising stars

Hear the UW’s best collegiate pianists, faculty and high school talents at an all-day festival this Saturday at UW-Madison. Masterclasses, workshops and performances hosted by UW-Madison faculty and students. This year’s Piano Extravaganza will feature piano works influenced by jazz and blues. Here is the schedule of events:

Friday, February 28, 2014

8:00 PM: Mills Concert Hall: Christopher Taylor, Faculty Concert Series

Saturday, March 1, 2014

8:30-11:00 AM: Piano Extravaganza Competition

11:00 AM-12:00 PM: Professor Johannes Wallmann, Jazz Improvisation Workshop

1:30-3:30 PM: Masterclass and Q&A with UW Piano Faculty

3:45-6:30 PM: Jazz and Blues in Classical Music  (Performed by UW-Madison Piano Majors)

Download the full schedule here:  PIANO EXTRAVAGANZA

Seeking an open culture, New York trombonist Chris Washburne found it in Madison

Why did Columbia University jazz trombonist and professor Chris Washburne, here November 15 and 16 to perform with the UW Jazz Orchestra,  choose UW-Madison for his undergraduate education?

Chris Washburne.
Chris Washburne.

He was originally from the small town of Bath, Ohio (pop. 9,635), so it wasn’t because he called Madison home.

He didn’t know any students here.

He wasn’t offered a scholarship.

He attended UW-Madison because he could see it was a place that would allow him to grow. “I was looking for a school of music where I could expand my horizons,” Chris (BM 1986) said in a telephone interview last summer. “Madison had a good philosophy department, a good forestry department. The campus was beautiful, close to farmland and natural spaces. It was also real funky.”

“It didn’t hurt that the day I visited with my mother, there was a huge rally on the mall with a killer reggae band,” he added, chuckling.

That enterprising quality was also evident in the School of Music, where he found faculty who didn’t try to limit his pursuits to strictly classical or strictly jazz.  “Most music programs have a divide: you’re either jazz or you’re ‘legit.’ But (professor of bass) Richard Davis and (professor of composition and saxophone) Les Thimmig helped me. they said you can do both — just go for it.”

Such cross-training proved to be quite valuable. When he was needed for orchestra–as with the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, where he served as principal trombone for a time–he was able to read music with the best of them. But when Bjork called to ask him to play on her soundtrack, he was able to do that, too. And he got a paycheck for both.

“Not many people can do both on the same level. But if you can, you’ll get twice as many employment possibilities,” he added.

Next week at several events, Chris will offer a smorgasbord of ideas about artistry, improvisation, and careers, as well as perform with the UW Jazz Orchestra. Here’s the schedule: On Friday, Nov. 15, Chris will be available to talk to students about careers as part of an informal Arts Enterprise Initiative event from 3 to 4 pm at Coffee Bytes, 799 University Avenue, in University Square. That evening, from 6 to 9 pm, he’ll rehearse in Music Hall with the UW Jazz Orchestra. On Saturday, Nov. 16, he’ll head up a master class on Latin Jazz and Salsa from 1 to 3 pm in Morphy Hall, in the Humanities Building. That evening, Nov. 16, he’ll perform with the UW Jazz Orchestra and the Jazz Composers’ Septet, directed by professors Johannes Wallmann and Les Thimmig.

In 2008, Washburne delved into the history of salsa music in New York City to write “Sounding Salsa,” published by Temple University Press, “a pioneering study that offers detailed accounts of these musicians grappling with intercultural tensions and commercial pressures.” It was that book that brought him to Madison, said Mark Hetzler, trombone professor at the School of Music. “I offered an independent study course on Latin jazz and Salsa last year for one of my outstanding undergrad students, Ty Psterson,” Mark said in an email.  “We read Chris’s book, ‘Sounding Salsa’ as part of the course and I was hooked.”

“Chris has a wealth of knowledge and experience with one of the most energized forms of music ever,” Mark continued. “I wanted to get him here to Madison to hear his artistry in person. I’m very excited to see what expertise and inspiration he’ll bring to our students.”

Chris’s visit is sponsored by the university’s Vilas Trust. The events are free and open to the public.

Chris agreed to answer a few questions about his life and work. Here are his answers, and we hope to see you on Nov. 15 and 16!

I watched “The Inclusion Show” and heard you talk about growing up in Ohio, down the street from Chrissie Hynde. That’s pretty amazing. How did all those rock and rollers end up in Ohio? What’s the likelihood of that?

“Not really sure, must have been the water!  It is quite striking though, and there is a reason why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland.  When I was growing up, it seemed like every other house on my block had a garage band.  In fact, the first band I ever played in was a Led Zeppelin cover band, although it was a bit difficult to sound like Jimmy Paige on the trombone.  I’m still trying to sound like him today.”

You got into the trombone by accident. Please tell that story.

“When I was in 5th grade, I wanted to play the trumpet, because it was shiny and played high notes. There was a night at the local high school where you could go try out all the band instruments and rent them, and I immediately went to the table with the trumpet on it.  I tried to play, and no sound came out.  My mother asked me skeptically, ‘Do you still want to play trumpet?,’ and I said yes.  But she insisted that I try at least one other instrument before we left.  The trombone happened to be on the table next to the trumpet.  When I blew into it, a sound came out.  So the trombone picked me, I didn’t pick it.  I still have ambivalent feelings about that experience.” 

You got into salsa in grad school, so Madison didn’t do much for you there. What did you get from UW-Madison?

“What I got from UW-Madison was an open mind to all musical styles.  I was immediately able to start studying not only with (retired UW trombone professor) Bill Richardson, but also Richard Davis and Les Thimmig, and none of them ever told me that I had to make a choice between musical styles.  They allowed me to experiment and do exactly what I wanted to do, and that was truly a gift, because when I moved to NY, my dream was to become a studio musician, and the one thing you need to be able to do as a studio musician in NY is play all kinds of music.  That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years.  I have been the principal trombone player for the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, a recording orchestra that has made over 50 Classical CD’s, played in jazz groups, recorded for pop bands, hip-hop bands, and all sorts of world music ensembles.  UW-Madison made that possible.”

You got your first salsa gig by accident. It must have taken guts to take on a gig in a genre you weren’t familiar with. Can you talk about that?

“I was practicing late one night at New England Conservatory and there was a knock on the door.  It was a trombonist I barely knew who said he desperately needed a sub that night.  When you’re in college, it doesn’t take guts to accept a gig; a gig is a gig and you accept it.  And as he was walking away, I asked, ‘What kind of music is it?’  He said ‘salsa.’  I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Just play loud, and they’re going to love you,’ so that’s what I did.  I guess they did love me because I started working with them regularly.  I didn’t steal his gig, though – he ended up quitting the band and joining another one.”

Your first two records: Eddie Palmieri with Barry Rogers from Brooklyn, playing trombone. Was he your icon? What did you learn from him?

“Barry Rogers transformed Latin trombone playing by combining bluesy, gutbucket style playing with the sharp rhythms of Latin music.  Being someone from outside of Latino culture, he really forged the path for others of us to enter into Latin music and make real contributions.  Like me, his background was jazz, blues and rock, and he was able to fit that aesthetic into Latin music.  I was taken by the fact that he was able to lead an entire Latin band with his trombone sound.  He played the lead guitar role in those bands.  And that’s what I wanted to do.”

Richard Davis was recently chosen as a “jazz master” by the National Endowment for the Arts. Your thoughts about Prof. Davis?

“Richard Davis was a true gift to my musical education, and he has touched so many students at UW.  I was delighted when he won the most prestigious award any jazz musician can receive.  Well deserved.”

How important are improvisational skills to a musician? How do you train that?

“The best improvisers in the entire world are two-year-olds.  Improvisation is one of the most fundamental survival skills that all humans possess.  It is through our educational system that those natural abilities become squelched and unused, or taken advantage of.  I view my job as a music educator to try to tap into my students’ innate abilities and refine them, no matter what kind of music they play.  Sure, jazz uses improvisation a bit more than classical music does, but in performance classical musicians must be flexible and adaptable, and make micro-improvisational choices.  These skills are essential for a successful performing career. The teaching process involves a lot of un-learning and correcting the damage that’s been done in prior educational settings, allowing students to explore their improvisational potential.”

Chris Washburne and his band, SYOTOS.
Chris Washburne and his band, SYOTOS.

Your band “Syotos” means “see you on the other side.” What an amazing story. You made it back from a potentially devastating surgery. That’s crazy difficult. Congratulations to you, and tell us a bit about how you managed to recover.

“Six months post-surgery, I decided that I could not accept never playing trombone again, because it was such an essential part of my self-identity.  So I called my surgeon and told him I was going to try to play.  He told me that he didn’t think it was possible because he had removed all the nerves and muscles from one side of my face.  I told him that I didn’t care, that I was going to try.  On my first day, I played for about one minute and could play one of the lowest notes on the horn, and that was it.  I thought if I could play one note today in one minute, I could play two notes tomorrow for two minutes.  And that’s what I did.  Six months later, I played my first gig back from surgery, retraining myself how to play on one side of my face.  The muscles started to grow back, but the nerves don’t regenerate, so I can’t play by feel, I play by sound.  The human body is very resilient, and we need to remind ourselves how adaptable and strong we really are, because we can get through just about anything.”

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Scholarships help out-of-state trumpeter make UW possible

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At Interlochen Arts Academy, summer 2013.
Left to right: Ben Davis with faculty Ken Larson, Michael Davison, Vincent DiMartino, and Rob Smith.

With out-of-state tuition a challenge for many students and families to afford, every contribution from the university makes it more possible that a student will attend. Here’s one more story in our series for Share the Wonderful, about Benjamin Davis, an undergraduate trumpeter in the studio of John Aley, who has taught at UW-Madison for 32 years and is also principal trumpet in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Brass Quintet. For 16 years, John has also taught high school students at the Interlochen Arts Camp.

Ben, a native of Richmond, Virgina, is one of two recipients of the Raymond F. Dvorak Scholarship and also is receiving a four-year School of Music scholarship.

Thank you to all who have given Ben the support that allows him to pursue his dreams. We hope you will enjoy his story!

“My name is Ben Davis and I am a senior trumpeter and composer from Richmond, Virginia studying Music Education here at UW. Being at UW has allowed me to become involved in so many different musical experiences that have been invaluable to my growth as a musician, educator, and student. I have been able to put on so many different hats in my career here between teaching music in practicum, being the Associate Director of the Isthmus Jazz Series with the Wisconsin Union Theater last year, performing with large ensembles and in brass quintet, and working as an ensemble librarian. I have been incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the great instrumental, composition, and music education faculty here and collaborate with graduate and undergraduate colleagues.

Aley_Jensen_Hetzler2013
Jessica Jensen, John Aley, and Mark Hetzler of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet.
Photograph by Jon Harlow.

“Recently, what I have been doing has been an eclectic mix of activities. This summer was the second time I had the pleasure to be a teaching assistant in the brass area at Interlochen Arts Camp where I got to coach chamber music with the high schoolers, conduct the Intermediate Brass Ensemble, play with the Faculty Brass Ensemble and Big Band, help teach the brass component of instrument exploration, and make connections to artists on faculty and staff from all over the country. At UW, I am finishing up my coursework in the final semester before I student teach next semester, so things are very busy in my life currently. Like most semesters, I have the privilege to work with and learn from esteemed trumpet guru John Aley, whose unbelievable sound and great teaching attracted me to UW as a high schooler. I am also enrolled in a number of general education courses. However, this semester’s work also happens to include learning flute, cello, bass, and percussion all of which have been very enjoyable!

“Outside of my courses for school, I study composition with Filippo Santoro, a current DMA candidate, who has been a great mentor and very important to my development as a composer. Over the last few months, I had the great opportunity to collaborate with current artist-in-residence at Kennesaw State University and trumpet extraordinaire Doug Lindsey (DMA ‘12). I wrote a new piece for trumpet and stacked percussion (vibraphone and marimba) for him called Impressions that will be played next semester. Next semester will also bring the premier of the quartet Dig. for Trombone, Vibraphone, Piano, and Cello, written for UW senior and trombonist Ty Peterson. It is influenced by ideas of rhythm and groove in free jazz and is structurally informed by the panels of visual artist Sol LeWitt’s All One-Two-Three and Four Part Combinations of Lines in Four Directions and in Four Colors (1976). I am currently working on a piece for orchestra in four movements called freezes, flows and am in the relatively early stages of analysis of Katharina Rosenberger’s octet parcours III.

“The scholarships I have received from the School of Music and the Raymond F. Dvorak Scholarship have been very important for my family. Because I am not from Wisconsin or Minnesota, I pay out of state tuition for my schooling which is expensive. The financial assistance provided through these scholarships really have been of much use in reducing the net cost of my schooling and that has allowed me to be able to continue experiencing all of these great things that I have been able to do up here at UW, so I am extremely thankful!”

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Wallmann and Ellington: Jazz Notes from UW-Madison

Jazz fans, take note. It’s time for some opportunities and remembrances.

This Thursday, June 20, jazz pianist and UW Director of Jazz Studies Johannes Wallmann will be performing live on Wisconsin Public Radio with tenor saxophonist great Eric Koppa, playing an hour of duets on Norman Gilliland’s Midday show. The concert airs live from noon to 1:00 pm on WPR’s News and Classical Music network (in Madison, WERN-FM 88.7).

Johannes Wallmann
Johannes Wallmann
Photo by Mike Anderson.

Wallmann and Koppa will be premiering two new compositions by Wallmann, “Water Music (for People without Aquariums)” and “A House for Men and Birds,” written for an upcoming recording session with his New York-based quintet and a tour of New England in July. The duo will also explore a couple of jazz standards, “Stella by Starlight,” and from My Fair Lady, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” as well as Eric Koppa’s “Regions.”

Meanwhile, this year’s Isthmus Jazz Festival has a strong UW component. The UW Jazz Orchestra under Wallmann’s direction will play at the Memorial Union at 6 pm on Saturday, June 22. Following that, festival headliner Carmen Lundy will perform at our own Mills Hall, Saturday, June 22, at 8 pm.

The Jazz Orchestra will be accompanied by special guest composer and bassist Marcus Shelby, of San Francisco.  Wallmann, a pianist, will perform as a special guest with the Edgewood College Big Band and with the Madison Jazz Orchestra.

Last but not least, the UWs connection with jazz great Duke Ellington was explored recently in a Wisconsin Public Radio segment that aired on May 24, the anniversary of Ellington’s death. Written and recorded by Dean Robbins, editor of Madison’s weekly, Isthmus.

Duke Ellington’s Portrait of Wisconsin

by Dean Robbins

“It’s hard to imagine a time when Duke Ellington was underrated. Almost 40 years after his death, we take it for granted that Ellington is one of America’s greatest composers. Arguably the greatest. He explored the possibilities of a jazz orchestra, taking it far beyond dance music. His records proved that such humble sounds as growling trombones and wailing saxophones could figure into a grand artistic vision.

“But in Ellington’s heyday, the cultural gatekeepers weren’t used to seeing jazz as art. To them, it sounded too earthy to be important. Duke would receive no Pulitzer Prizes when he created his masterpieces in the 1930s and ‘40s. He would receive no federal grants when his band fell on hard times in the 1950s. Instead, he was forced to play background music at an ice show to pay the bills.

“This was also the era of segregation, of course, when a black musician like Ellington couldn’t even walk in a nightclub’s front door. Duke was a gracious man, and he took such indignities in stride. But the rest of us can be outraged on his behalf.

“Thankfully, Ellington did receive his share of official recognition late in his life. And believe it or not, one of his most glorious triumphs came in Wisconsin.

Ellington

“In the early 1970s, the UW-Madison made an extraordinary gesture for the time. It granted Ellington an honorary doctorate and mounted a weeklong festival of his music. It even gave Duke and his band members the rare opportunity to conduct master classes. Best of all, Governor Patrick Lucey proclaimed Duke Ellington Week throughout the state. Ellington considered this one of the greatest honors he ever received. In his 70s, he was gaining long-overdue recognition as an American treasure.

“Duke proclaimed his undying love for Wisconsin – the beer, the cheese, and the people. He expressed his gratitude in a suite written just for us, called “UWIS.” It’s Duke’s musical portrait of the state, painted in a dazzling range of colors.

“The old master wasn’t resting on his laurels. He was still experimenting with jazz form, even scoring his first polka. The polka, as you can imagine, surprised and delighted the Wisconsin crowd when Ellington performed it at the UW festival.

“About ‘UWIS,’ Ellington said, ‘I tried to evoke some of the happiness that Wisconsin and the inhabitants of that state had given me.’

“Now there’s something to be proud of, fellow Wisconsinites. We made Duke Ellington happy.”

Click here to hear Dean’s commentary on WPR.

Wayne Corey: “UW Honors Jazz Band hits right notes”

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Members of the UW High School Honors Jazz Band. Photo by Mike Anderson.

Wayne Corey lives in Madison and loves jazz. He writes a semi-regular feature column, Wayne’s Music World, for a blog called “Madison Jazz.” Last week, Wayne attended a concert at Mills Hall that featured the inaugural group of young musicians comprising the UW High School Honors Jazz Band as well as the UW Madison Jazz Orchestra, both conducted by UW jazz professor (new just this past year), Johannes Wallmann. Wayne loved it, and wrote this post. Reprinted with permission.

Madison Jazz website

“The UW Honors Jazz Band is the best jazz idea in Madison in 2013.  But it isn’t just an idea. These kids can flat-out play.  As a veteran “listener” I’ve listened to a lot of good musical ideas.  They don’t always work.  The UW Honors Jazz Band from the fertile musical mind of Professor Johannes Wallmann proved at its inaugural concert that it is a really great working idea.

“The Honors Band was the early May opening act for the UW Jazz Orchestra.  I’ll say more about that band’s fine performance next week.

“The impressive set list for the Honors Jazz Band included Matt Dennis’ classic Angel Eyes and Thad Jones’ The Farewell plus A Single Sky by Dave Douglas and Samba de Los Gatos from Mike Steinel, a prominent jazz faculty member at the renowned University of North Texas.  With a set like this the auditions for the by-invitation-only band must have had a sign reading, ” ‘No wimps allowed.’

“The band worked together for just three, albeit very long, rehearsals. The players looked very serious, expected from a young group making their initial public appearance.  At the same time, the listener felt a sense of swing from the group.  These are talented musicians playing more than notes.  They seem to have a surprising understanding of the music they are playing.

“I was impressed with several soloists including the budding improvisational skills of trumpeter Henry Smith of Madison West and the exactly right tone of Middleton’s Michael Hoot on Angel Eyes.  Angel Eyes is a song I know really well.  I can’t be fooled.  The Four Freshmen and Five Trombones, Sinatra in a “saloon song” segment, Ella when she slowed things down.  Great artists have done great things with Angel Eyes.  Michael Hoot and the Honors Band got it right.

“The band’s initial appearance featured fourteen musicians from six area high schools, Madison East, West & Memorial, Middleton, McFarland and Verona.  Four UW Jazz Orchestra “ringers” augmented the sound.  Assistant director Brad Carman from West led the opening number.  Noticeable by their absence were any players from La Follette, Edgewood and McFarland high schools. Sun Prairie High School has the leading local jazz reputation and was not represented but that band has been preparing for the Essentially Ellington competition at New York City’s Lincoln Center.

“The UW Honors Jazz Band is important on a number of levels.  It tells very talented high school musicians that America’s great original art form is important.  It encourages them to study the music, play the music and – of course – think about a future with jazz.  The Honors Band introduces the musicians to peers and to music that may be old to some of us oldies but is probably new to many of them.  It demonstrates to the musicians, friends and families that jazz is complex music to be played by skilled musicians.

“The Honors Band reminds those of us who have been listening to jazz for decades that our music can again begin to grow.  It can play a vital role in American culture.  If you have friends in Europe and Japan you know that jazz is a more important part of the music scene in those areas than it is in the country of its birth.  I’m grateful that Japan, Germany, France, Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries play such vital role in the promotion of jazz and – let’s be honest – the earning power of jazz musicians.  For listeners to be able to keep listening we need musicians to earn an income.

“The emergence of programs such as the UW Honors Jazz Band suggests our music future in the Upper Midwest may be getting brighter.  It really is the best jazz idea in Madison in 2013.”