The Jazz Studies program at the University of North Carolina Asheville has traditionally been a strong one, so it should come as no surprise that the university's big band and jazz vocal ensembles performed a well received concert of jazz standards and modern pieces.
The group seemed to be hesitant on the first tunes, "The Days of Wine and Roses" by Johnny Mercer and the bossa "Contessa" by Lennie Niehaus. The groove was tepid and the group lacked tightness. That said however, the latter tune featured a respectable solo by Sam Irvin, IV, and the group redeemed itself with a nice performance of "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue," which gave pianist Simon George his first solo of the night.
The Studio 18 Vocal Ensemble then came on and showed that UNCA possesses a considerable amount of vocal talent. Nic White demonstrated his ample vocal abilities on "Mata del'Anima Sola" by the Venezuelan composer Antonio Estevez and was backed up by the group singing a polyrhythmic texture behind him. Josh Doub sang lead on a tasteful arrangement of the U2 song "MLK." Millie Palmer gave a great performance of the gospel tune "City Called Heaven," one of the best songs of Studio 18's performance. The Nat King Cole classic "Orange Colored Sky" and the Pablo Ruiz song "Sway" were the next two pieces in the Studio 18 set, the former featuring a charismatic performance by Lee Huff. A very appealing a cappella arrangement of the Beatles favorite "Blackbird" was another high point of the group's set list, which finished with an arrangement of the popular tune by One Republic "Apologize," showcasing Jared Hooker.
The highlights of the concert undoubtedly came with the guest performers Paul Babelay on the vibraphone and Russ Wilson on drums and vocals. Mr. Babelay gave a rousing and swinging performance on the Irving Berlin classic "Blue Skies," demonstrating his penchant for the blues scale and exciting runs. Mr. Wilson joined the band for a funky performance of "Blues in the Night" by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. His drumming kicked the group into a higher gear, and the entire band was energized by his rock-solid groove. Russ Wilson also demonstrated his considerable brush chops on the Neal Hefti classic "Cute." His lengthy solo was a master class in building suspense and excitement. The penultimate tune, "Stardust," was performed by Russ Wilson on drums and vocals, director Rich Willey on trumpet, Paul Babelay on vibes, and student Will Beasley on the bass. On this tune, Beasley played one of the finest solos of the night; he also deserves special mention for swingingly holding down the bass chair all night. The evening closed with the full band doing "Basie's Buddy B," which gave pianist Simon George, guitarist Eric Merchant, and trombonist J.P. Furnas room to stretch out.
Although some growing pains were evident, the students of UNCA showed that we have much to look forward to in the future.