When a group of academics got together to play at Nichols Hall recently, the results were anything but academic. The four veteran musicians of the Eastman School of Music Faculty Jazz Quartet opened the 2015-16 season of the Harker Concert Series on Nov. 6. Prior to the evening show, the quartet gave a wonderful morning performance for students and, the next day, held a three-hour master class for students.
The group, as its name indicates, comprises faculty members at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. All masters in their own right, their credentials have led them to stints with the likes of Tito Puente, Chet Baker and Buddy Rich. They have been playing together for more than 15 years.
Having played with quite a few of them, the quartet harbor a healthy respect for the greats, evident in the choice to begin with the evening with Duke Ellington’s “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” immediately elevated by trumpeter Clay Jenkins’ buoyant melodies and pianist Harold Danko’s tasteful comping, drummer Rich Thompson quietly dominating his space on the stage. Danko’s bluesy solo cleared the way for an effortless bass solo by Jeff Campbell, with the trumpet returning for the outro.
The next tune, the Thompson-penned “Less is More,” saw the band cruising through an infectious three-four stride, driven along by Campbell’s strolling bass, providing what might be a delightful soundtrack to an afternoon walk through the city at twilight, preferably after a good rain.
Danko opened the next number with an extended intro of unaccompanied chords that fell in sheets, making way for a Campbell bass solo that had Jenkins wearing one of many trance-like expressions he showed during the evening. He followed with a virtuosic and tuneful solo that led gracefully into another Danko-led section, this one less busy, gathering momentum for a thrilling finish that Jenkins punctuated with a sustained note.
The band would return to the greats later in the set, treating Thelonious Monk’s “Holiday in San Francisco” with the delicacy and experimentation unique to the beloved prodigy, as Danko took a number of mid-solo detours, in line with the Monk canon. Jenkins’ trumpet solo wavered between plaintive and explosive as Campbell provided sparse accompaniment. Campbell would add, after the song had concluded, “I often wonder what that trip was like,” eliciting some – perhaps unexpectedly loud – laughter from the audience.
The group closed the set with a Jenkins riff on a Tommy Dorsey chord progression, titled “Work First” (as it was based on Dorsey’s “Opus 1”), introducing stomping, upbeat drum rolls and a lively, playful melody. Each solo carried with it a distinct sense of fun and adventure, as well as a clear sense of one another’s abilities. Perhaps no one onstage was having more fun than Thompson, however, who traded solos with this bandmates en route to the finale, which ended with Jenkins holding the last note, possibly one of the softest exclamation points in recent memory.