Saturday, March 7, 2009

Music feature: Trumpeter Jones sees academia taking greater role in jazz

Educator, composer and trumpeter Sean Jones.

By Bill Meredith

If you ask a jazz educator what shape traditional jazz is in, you might get the proverbial glass-half-full response.

But ask Sean Jones, a professor of jazz studies and trumpet at Duquesne University (plus a Mack Avenue recording artist, and trumpeter alongside Wynton Marsalis in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), and you get sound reasons as to why jazz is vibrant in the 21st century.

"Nothing good dies," Jones said before a Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra concert Jan. 22 at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. "Right now, I think you're seeing a flow of great jazz musicians becoming jazz educators. People that are actual performers are getting degrees and doctorates. That was rare before.

“It's great to have real musicians in the classroom. I think you'll see the traditional scene change from clubs to university master classes and clinics,” he said.

As for contemporary jazz, Jones dismisses its impact without being dismissive.

"That's something else altogether, and I think most people realize that," he says. "I'm not going to jump all over Kenny G. Smooth jazz is a different thing. And everything has its place."

Jones, 30, spoke on the first leg of a Florida mini-tour that took the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra from Miami to Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, Naples, Sarasota, and West Palm Beach over seven nights. The orchestra had just been part of the special Let Freedom Swing: A Celebration of America, held on the eve of the Obama presidential inauguration at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

"It was very exciting to be around such a historic happening," Jones says. "We did a piece called MLK with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and others with Freddy Cole and Cassandra Wilson."

Though the Pittsburgh resident has been with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra since 2004, Jones still doesn't consider himself an orchestra veteran.

"I'm a new guy in the band," he says, citing long-standing members such as trumpeter Ryan Kisor (who joined in 1994) and saxophonists Ted Nash (1997) and Walter Blanding (1998).

But Jones says that newer members including pianist Dan Nimmer, saxophonist Sherman Irby, drummer Ali Jackson and trombonists Elliot Mason and Chris Crenshaw, have helped the orchestra evolve.

"The band has a new voice now," Jones says. "When I first joined, it was solely Wynton's vision, but now he's made it more of a band vision. We're not just playing Duke Ellington charts and Wynton's music. Everyone in the band can solo; everyone composes, and we all contribute arrangements."

At the Kravis Center performance Jan. 28, too many of those arrangements made the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra border on novelty act status during the first set, as it played a series of nursery rhymes and TV themes.

In fairness, some of the renditions elevated the material. Jackson contributed a classy arrangement of (It's Not Easy) Bein’ Green, Joe Raposo’s theme song for Muppet Kermit the Frog, with vocals and creative soloing by trombonist Vincent Gardner. Marsalis' arrangement of La Cucaracha spotlighted selfless trumpeter Marcus Printup, and also featured banner work by baritone saxophonist Paul Nedzela, subbing for regular member Joe Temperly.

Yet the cutesy Itsy-Bitsy Spider (arranged by Marsalis) and Old McDonald Had a Farm (Nash) bordered on overkill. A stronger set two favored great compositions -- Joe Henderson's Inner Urge, Wayne Shorter's Look at the Birdie, and Marsalis' closing Movement 12 -- over novelty.

Jones, Kisor and Printup anchored the trumpet section throughout the night, and even Marsalis took only a few opportunities to unleash his prodigious soloing technique. Jones' spotlight came during Marsalis' arrangement of Shorter's ballad Infant Eyes.

"I haven't had time to do any arrangements for the orchestra lately," Jones says. "I've been busy touring on my own, and have a new CD coming out called The Search Within. I started my solo career in 2004, the same year I joined the orchestra and became a professor."

Part of Jones' hands-on curriculum includes attending jam sessions with students.

"I'm actually there," he says, "so they can come up to me afterward and ask, 'What was that you played on that tune?' Some have recorded me at a jam, and transcribed my solos.

“Others will bring up their [jazz educator] Jamey Aebersold book and say, 'You played this tune, but I don't understand why you played this note on that chord.' We're talking about it, right there when it happens. That's real teaching."

Bill Meredith is a South Florida freelance writer who has written extensively about jazz for Jazziz and Jazz Times.

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