Eclectic Barbary Coast concert to feature nine seniors
Björk, Jethro Tull and Jimmy McHugh. Flute, vocoder and acoustic bass. To say that this Saturday’s Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble show is eclectic would be an understatement. The ensemble’s nine graduating seniors each selected their own pieces for the Coast’s senior feature show, and the resulting lineup is a cocktail of jazz and rock, much of it arranged by the performers themselves.
Director Taylor Ho Bynum took over the ensemble this year after the retirement of Hopkins Center fixture Don Glasgo. When plotting out the Coast’s future, Bynum said, he had to balance his own artistic ideas with Glasgo’s legacy.
“I wanted to respect his tradition and move it in the directions that made sense for me,” Bynum said. “In some conversations, students will say, ‘This has been a Coast tradition for a long time.’ Cool, I dig that tradition, let’s keep it — but maybe this other one doesn’t make as much sense to me, and we can evolve it somewhere else.”
The senior feature show was one of Bynum’s keepers. An annual tradition of the ensemble, the concert gives each senior a chance to call their own number. Some seniors chose songs that carry special meaning. Others chose music that would allow them to jam. Many of the songs will serve both purposes.
Singer Zoe Sands ’18, who is half Icelandic and has lived in Iceland for most of her life, said she wanted to perform a piece that reflected where she was from. Thinking an Icelandic song might not resonate with the audience, Sands settled on “It’s Oh So Quiet,” released in 1995 by Icelandic singer Björk.
“Björk is the most successful Icelandic musician, an amazing performer and weird as hell, and I love that and think it’s extremely inspiring,” Sands said.
Pianist Emma Howeiler ’18 went a more traditional route with “Too Young to Go Steady,” written by Jimmy McHugh and first released by Nat King Cole in 1956. It’s a piece Howeiler learned in high school, and an intentional bookend to her experience in organized school jazz.
Howeiler will wear several hats during “Too Young to Go Steady:” pianist, soloist and singer, all while leading the band. If that’s not enough, she also arranged the piece.
The most striking piece of the night might be Daniel Seo Tu’18’s rendition of Herbie Hancock’s “I Thought It Was You.” It will feature him playing the vocoder, which adjusts a vocalist’s voice as autotune does. Normally the player adjusts his tone with a keyboard as a controller, but Seo will be using an electronic wind instrument, or EWI. For Seo, the piece is not only a tribute to Hancock, whom he cites as the inspiration for picking up the vocoder in the first place, but also the song, which was groundbreaking in its use of the vocoder in jazz.
Indeed, the entire concert will be different from the typical Barbary Coast concert, as it will feature a smaller ensemble but a greater variety and number of pieces. Playing more pieces, ensemble members have less time to rehearse each one. But because smaller musician groups tend to learn quicker and sound better faster, they only required four short rehearsals during the term. And seniors have far greater agency in their musical and performance choices — in a typical concert, Howeiler would not be singing nor would Seo be playing the vocoder. The audience on Saturday can expect a unique mix of virtuoso playing and individual experimentation.
Many of the pieces in the concert will sound quite different from their original versions. Howeiler reharmonized her arrangement of “Too Young to Go Steady” to be played by five horns: two tenor saxophones, alto sax, trumpet and trombone. Even though she wrote the parts for member she handpicked from the band, “I had to tell the musicians how to play and what I was hearing in my head, because they were reading the notes and interpreting it differently than I had imagined.”
Seo also did some arrangement to modify the Herbie Hancock original, reharmonizing it to fit a five-piece horn section. Howeiler and Seo open the piece in a piano-saxophone duet, but Seo soon switches to the vocoder and adds a EWI solo that Hancock couldn’t have dreamed of.
“It’s Oh So Quiet,” Sands’s selection, has come a long way since its orgin in the 1940s. It began as a German song, “Und jetzt ist es still,” and a 1951 Betty Hutton cover added English lyrics. When Björk, mostly known for her electronic music, released a big-band cover in 1995, the track shot up the charts. Bynum tracked down a transcription from a German composer, and the sheet music arrived the day of Sands’s first rehearsal.
Saturday’s concert marks the end of Bynum’s first year at the head of the Coast, and he has already made his presence felt. While Glasgo favored funk and Latin jazz, Bynum began his first year with a fall concert of traditional favorites like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk before bringing in some of his own collaborators for a contemporary winter show.
For Howeiler, the arrival of Bynum has been transformative.
“He’s so big in the avant-garde jazz scene and the creative music world that he’s opened up a whole new understanding for me of what I can play as a pianist,” Howeiler said. “I’m a completely different player than I was before he arrived.”
Sands, primarily a rock singer before joining the Coast this year, will be performing a senior feature after just one year with the group. “It makes it really sad for me to leave because I’ve learned so much in this one year,” she said. “I realized jazz is a lot harder than I ever imagined, but it’s made me so much of a better vocalist.”