As has been customary for Duke University's jazz program under the direction of John Brown, the department brings two guest artists to the school for a three-day residency each semester. This semester, Brown called on longtime friend Mark Gross, a critically-acclaimed saxophonist whose work with the top jazz musicians of the past three decades is a testament to his musicianship. While most guest artists who perform with school ensembles tend to stay within the traditional guidelines of only offering critiques and performing, Gross got involved with the band on a more personal level by conducting as well.
The first half of the program consisted of the Duke Jazz Ensemble performing six pieces: two instrumental and four vocal. With a mix of arranged jazz standards such as "Night and Day" and "How High the Moon" as well as an original piece from trumpet player Randy Brecker entitled "Tujica," the band and vocalists gave performances that were satisfying overall but not quite up to the level of what was to come. Of note was the lyrically tasteful piano solo in "Tujica" by Riley Mangan.
After the last vocal piece, Brown turned the program over to Gross, who led the band through four arrangements of jazz standards. Gross' musicianship certainly spoke for itself as he expertly navigated the subtleties of his own version of Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and the Billy Strayhorn classic "Lush Life," as well as the more energetic "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "A Night in Tunisia."
Between pieces, Gross spoke to the audience with charismatic flair that helped keep the momentum going. Before "A Night in Tunisia," he shared the story of meeting and performing with Dizzy Gillespie while on the road with vibraphonist/bandleader Lionel Hampton. As a small tribute to the legendary duo of Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Gross shared the stage with lead trumpet player Jay Mitchum, a regular with this ensemble; both channeled their respective counterparts effortlessly.
For the final selection, Brown returned to the stage to conduct the Frank Foster composition "Easin' It" to close the evening on a more mellow note. During the tune, Gross stood off to the side of the stage, enjoying the performance until Brown motioned for him to take a solo. While Gross was soloing, Brown swapped places with bass player and Duke student DJ Chatelaine and motioned to the rest of the rhythm section to drop out while Brown and Gross continued in a swinging saxophone and bass duet. Brown then swapped out to bring the song to a roaring vamp while Gross wailed. At the conclusion of the piece, Brown, Gross, and the band were given a standing ovation.
Overall, Gross' performance with the Duke Jazz Ensemble was impeccable. He displayed an artistry steeped in tradition and created room for the students to shine as well.
Duke's second artist-in-residence for the semester, vibraphonist Joe Locke, will join the ensemble on April 7.