Jazz Ensemble I takes the stage, donning classy black-and-white attire and glistening brass instruments. The PAC lights dim, and the bubbling murmurs of the audience quiet down into silence. “One, two, three, four,” music director William Flaherty mutters, and then the room erupts with music. M-A’s Jazz Band left onlookers speechless on Saturday, Jan. 27, with their mellow tunes and upbeat numbers in an opening performance for renowned jazz drummer Akira Tana.
Unlike regular concerts held at M-A, this event was sponsored by the Palo Alto Jazz Alliance. As a result, the audience not only contained M-A parents but also avid jazz enthusiasts and musicians, which made the performances all the more exciting.
Junior and tenor saxophone Sophia Jobst said, “These were people that were paying to see jazz, so it was an audience of people who really appreciated what you were doing. It was a really warm environment, and people kept coming up and saying, ‘I can’t believe you guys are only in high school.’”
The show kicked off with “Bernie’s Tune,” an upbeat song with a bouncy feel. The theme from the saxophones loudly resonated throughout the room, and the clangs of drums danced happily in the background.
Next, the band played “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” while junior Lia Lev sang. The slow, sentimental melody paired with Lev’s sweet and serene voice moved the audience deeply. Picturesque lyrics like, “High on a hill, it calls to me / To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars,” conjured images of the beautiful shoreline city.
Afterward, the band flipped the switch, upping the tempo with “Sidewinder,” an exhilarating blues song played with intense vigor. The musicians shared a suspenseful melodic line, but the alto saxophone and trumpet peeked out in the end with exciting bravado, before slyly converging back together at the end. The piano held the tension throughout the piece, and senior Carson Sanie wowed the crowd with his expressive solo on the trombone.
They transitioned back to a mellower song, “So Danco Samba,” or “Jazz ‘n’ Samba,” with sophomore Kealy Bryman on the mic. The band skillfully played the jazzy Latin chart behind Bryman, who filled the room with her husky yet rich vocals. Despite its more tender tune, the song switched suddenly between a slow and quick-paced tempo that kept audience members breathless as they awaited the next note.
Finally, the band concluded their awe-inspiring performance with “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” The song began with a quiet up-and-down scale on the piano, which grew louder and bolder as the drums chimed in. In sing-along fashion, the solo trumpet played a quick but muted theme, which the saxophones then immediately echoed with more gusto. Later on in the composition, the drums played a wicked solo that slowed the tempo, and with a final, vibrating note from every instrument, the band signaled its ending.
“I think that everyone did really awesome,” Lev later said. “We’ve had a lot of time to fully hone all the songs to their full potential.”
With the Jazz Ensemble’s performance now over and the eruption of applause settling down, Tana took over the stage. He and his group—a “dream” quintet consisting of Tana on drums, James Mahone on saxophone, Ken French on piano, Doug Miller on bass, and Clairdee on vocals—played a medley of astonishing jazz pieces that kept the audience entranced for well over an hour, including “Bolivia” by Cedar Walton, “Simone” by Frank Foster, “I’m Beginning to See the Light” by Ella Fitzgerald, and more. The players clearly enjoyed the stage and shared great chemistry, always facing one another during their performances and cracking jokes between sets.
Some band students were starstruck to see such famous professionals. Lev said, “I’ve been going to the Boston Symphony since I was a kid, and [Tana] used to play for them. So I thought it was insane being able to play for him, especially considering that he was standing in the wings while I was singing.”
Jobst said, “I was fangirling the whole time because they’re such a good band. It’s so cool to see a professional musician, and being able to open for them was just incredible. I was like, ‘Wow, so this is what it’s like to play jazz professionally.’”
On the following Friday, Feb. 1, Tana stepped in during class time for a jazz clinic. He spent the period listening in on the band’s songs and intermittently stopping the class to compliment an outstanding performance or offer notes for improvement..
Junior and guitarist William Knox said, “I really liked his attitude. When he taught, he would always count off really energetically.”
Tana advised students to listen to the original recordings of their songs. “It’s just to get an idea, not just reading the notes and playing the song. You want to learn the history of it, and doing so will give you a better perspective on what that song’s about,” he explained.
Knox said, “It was nice to get a new perspective on our pieces and hear his feedback. I learned more about what matters when we’re rehearsing, especially as a big group band, and that we should focus a lot more on the emotion that comes through or what kind of attitude we want to get across.”
Sanie said, “It felt good to learn from him because he is a professional. He’s really pursuing something that we’re just doing as a hobby.”
Tana noted the band’s impressive talent. “Mr. Flaherty knows how to conduct the band, so it makes it very easy to come in,” he said. “They’re already very enthusiastic and receptive to instruction, so I could focus more on the nuances and the little arrangements, and maybe tweak some things as opposed to trying to reconstruct something from nothing.”
M-A’s music program will host its Spring Concert on May 22, so be sure to mark your calendars and tune in!