John Brown, Director of the Duke University Jazz Ensemble, chose a great warm-up piece with which to open the 19-member student band's 2016/17 season; Sammy Nestico's moderate swing piece "Wind Machine" afforded the musicians the opportunity to get comfortable with the now excellent acoustics of a full house in Baldwin Auditorium. A similar approach was taken by Bradley Simmons, who directs both the Djembé and Afro-Cuban Ensembles. The Djembé Ensemble is a West African drumming group comprised of five hand-drummers and one bass drummer; their music is considered an important part of the Mandinque peoples' lives that are inextricably entwined in its rhythms. The Afro-Cuban group is an ensemble of eight conga drummers. Both these ensembles included Simmons.
The musicians were well rehearsed for their performances with smooth transitions between pieces; of note was the introduction of the three female vocalists, Ingrid Tablezon ("They Can't Take That Away from Me"), Julie Williams ("The Nearness of You") and Taela Dudley ("Let's Fall in Love") – all were able to project these Standards with a swinging verve that augers well for their future.
Swing was also the essence of this concert and came to the fore with the introduction of West Coast trumpeter Wayne Bergeron. Bergeron's distinctive style of playing particularly high-pitched notes has brought him international renown with a litany of the best big bands in the business for many years. He currently also enjoys his work as a clinician and educator. This was evident in his performance with the Duke Ensemble and particularly on the Leigh Harline and Ned Washington standard "When You Wish Upon a Star" where he split his playing with student trumpeter Stephanie Wiehe that culminated in an impressively perfect unison ending. Bergeron was able to demonstrate mastery of his instrument at the end of the first set on Tim Kubis' arrangement of "High Clouds" (composer unknown) with high notes soaring almost beyond audibility – a talent he no doubt perfected during his stint with the incomparable Maynard Ferguson band of the 1980s. Pianist Riley Mangan also produced an inspired solo on this, and other pieces, together with placing his accompanying chord changes in exactly the right places that effected the "swing" of the tune, and particularly served to enhance rather than compete with the soloist.
Following the intermission, Director Brown had the Jazz Ensemble parade onto the stage from various auditorium entrances in a pseudo New Orleans march fashion. The musicians played freely on their instruments, and the music gradually morphed into an interesting introduction to Charles Mingus' tune "Moanin' " by the time they finally assembled on the stage. Very innovative; Mingus would no doubt have approved!
The Djembé and Afro-Cuban Ensembles played four pieces in this concert consisting of different repetitive rhythmic patterns representing various societal activities, initiated by Simmons and followed by the drummers playing in synchronization; in each case, towards the end of the piece, the tempo would gradually increase and then terminate with a prescribed rhythmic phrase. Their final piece involved the very effective use of the Clave (a five-stroke rhythmic pattern that is played with two short ebony sticks) and is used today mainly in Afro-Cuban music, but has it's origins in Africa.
The highlight of the second set featured Bergeron sitting in with the Duke Jazz Ensemble trumpet section. The entire set was a very effective lesson on how to give a brass section the "punch" it needs to propel the band to greater heights. Ironically, the piece in question was the Lew Spence and Alan & Marilyn Bergman's standard "Nice and Easy"; it was indeed very nice and just appeared easy! In addition, it was doubly enriched with the superb vocal skills of Dudley; a great future is predicted for her if she continues to grow as a jazz singer.
Bergeron's main claim to fame has been as a prolific player in almost all the great swing big bands since the mid 1980s. The last two pieces, "First Impression" written by his friend Dan Higgins, and the classic Frank Foster original "Who Me" written for the Count Basie Band, were played with authority and enthusiasm worthy of any large jazz band. His performance with the Duke Jazz Ensemble should become a seminal event in the lives of these budding musicians. Kudos to Brown for bringing him to Duke, even if it was for only a few days – and one great performance.