HSJF Recap: High School Performances

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Students perform at the 2015 Berklee High School Jazz Festival on Saturday, January 31, 2015 at John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center. Photo by Dave Green.

One of the great joys of being a blogger at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival is having the chance to go and listen to a number of high school bands at the festival. This year, I had the pleasure of listening to the Gray Bee Jazz Band from St. Benedict’s Preparatory School (NJ), the Bacon Academy Jazz Band (CT), the Vocal Jazz Ensemble from Fryeburg Academy (ME), and the Boston Latin School Big Band (MA).

St. Benedict’s Preparatory School Gray Bee Jazz Band

The first band that I had the opportunity to hear was the Gray Bee Jazz Band from St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, directed by Jeremy Fletcher. The ensemble performed some of Fletcher’s original arrangements taken from God Bless the Grass, a 1966 environmental tribute album by folk singer Pete Seeger. Their set consisted of “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood,” (a re-arrangement of a traditional Irish air, “My Lagan Love”), “From Way Up Here,” and “God Bless the Grass.”

After praising Judges’ Choice winner Dakota Gibbs, Berke McKelvey, an associate professor in the Ear Training Department, gave the verbal critique. While praising the dynamics and the program, McKelvey reminded the ensemble, “Don’t wait for the person next to you to come in,” and emphasized the importance of contrasting rhythm section playing during ensemble and solo passages.

Bacon Academy Jazz Band

Celebrating their 26th year at the festival, the Bacon Academy Jazz Band, under the direction of Thomas Kessler, delivered another successful performance, finishing fourth in the L3 classification. After opening with a Mark Taylor arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail,” the second tune, a Stan Kenton arrangement of “I’m Glad There’s You,” featured Judges’ Choice Award winner Sean Flynn on alto saxophone. The band closed their set with a Fred Sturm arrangement of Piazzola’s “Michelangelo.”

The verbal critique was given by Manuel Kaufmann, an assistant professor in Berklee’s Contemporary Writing and Production Department. Kaufmann praised the band’s stylistic interpretation of the charts, but also reminded the band of the importance of playing the full duration of a note, saying, “The attacks are good, but think about the finish of the note.” All in all, however, Kaufmann “loved the program and [he] loved the playing.”

Fryeburg Academy Vocal Jazz Ensemble

Though I arrived late to Fryeburg Academy Vocal Jazz Ensemble’s performance, from what I heard, it is easy to see why Mimi Rohlfing’s group took first place in the V1 classification at this year’s festival. Among the ensemble’s traits were great intonation, authentic stylistic interpretation, and fantastic tone. This was especially the case on the ensemble’s second tune, a beautiful rendition of the ballad “Tenderly.” There are good performances, and there are performances that take you far away from the sterile compartments of a municipal convention center; the Vocal Jazz Ensemble ensemble provided one of the latter. To quote the verbal critique, “’Tenderly’ was gorgeous; all of you used your head voices beautifully, intonation was excellent…really wonderful job.”

Boston Latin School Big Band

After being taken to a far-away place by the Fryeburg Academy Vocal Jazz Ensemble, I was taken immediately back to the wonderful city of Boston by the Boston Latin School’s Jazz Ensemble, directed by Paul J. Pitts, who remarked, “We’re the Boston Latin School Jazz Ensemble, located here in Boston, here at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival in Boston.  That enough Boston for you?”

I only had the opportunity to stay for their first song, a beautiful rendition of the greasy Duke Ellington ballad, “Rocks In My Bed.” The band’s stylistic interpretation was quite strong, and the vocal performance was a pleasure to hear. In fact, I cannot think of a better way to have ended a day of bouncing between high school performances than with a truly great performance of a classic jazz tune written by the master himself, Duke Ellington.

We at berkleejazz.org want to thank everyone for coming to the festival this year. Thank you for sharing your music with us; we hope that the festival proved an enjoyable experience for you, and provided you with feedback that will help you grow as musicians. Last but not least, be sure to check out the festival winners and performances on the festival website. Adieu until next year!

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          February 10, 2018