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Saddleback Professors Jazz Concert Shows Great Skill

The show was more for the ears than for the heart.

It was a Monday evening, Aug. 29 to be exact, following a sizzling 90-plus-degree summer day. I had driven into Mission Viejo from the desert, where temperatures bounced between 103 and 106 degrees. That kind of heat can drain every drop of energy out of the best of us. The  was moderately filled.

Onstage, the faculty band featured Jerry Pinter on tenor saxophone, Matt Zebley on alto sax, Ron Stout on trumpet, on trombone, guitarist Jamie Rosenn, Gerard Hagen on piano, on bass and Paul Johnson manning the drums.

The jazz studies program at Saddleback College emphasizes creativity through improvisation and ensemble performance. It focuses on the historical, theoretical and intuitive aspects of America’s indigenous art form, so I was excited to hear what these Saddleback professors were going to present.

They opened with "Autumn Leaves," featuring an arrangement by Sellers, the director of the jazz department. His uniquely harmonic arrangement would set the mood for what followed.

Zebley composed the next song, "Latham’s Lament." Johnson held the rhythm steadily, along with Hughes on bass, and gave the pretty melody a strong foundation. Latham’s style is reminiscent of  that of Stan Getz, smooth and satiny. However, it was Sellers who lifted the composition higher with his trombone technique of shaking the instrument and booming out a tremolo effect during his short solo. 

Next they presented a slow, sexy rendition of "When You Wish Upon a Star," originally sung by a cricket named Jiminy in the Walt Disney classic "Pinnochio." It showcased another amazing arrangement. The repeatable interludes used wonderful, tightly woven horn harmonics.

Stout’s trumpet solo brought the music to a sweet hush as he flew like a happy bird on top of the swing-feel. Hughes played a bass solo using the top of his double bass register and singing the melody both precisely and dynamically. The end of this number became a bossa nova, and the horns got a chance to play, improvising and embellishing a harmonic dissonance on the vamp. It was a smashing arrangement!

Lil Armstrong (one of Louie’s wives) composed "Struttin’ with Some Bar B Que" and Pinter strutted his stuff on this one. He played his saxophone legato smooth and cool as ice cubes sliding down a glass hillside.

All in all, I would have bought the CD of this outstanding concert.  However, I found one important factor missing: stage persona. I realize it had been a hot day and perhaps that played a part, but I missed seeing the joy, excitement and on-stage energy that great musicians like these can exude.

My ears enjoyed the concert, but emotionally, the ensemble left the audience wanting more.  Sellers let go on a couple of his solos, and folks in the audience, including myself, shouted out approval, and the applause was hearty. I would have enjoyed seeing more magical moments like that during their show.

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