By Alisa Samadani, Staff Writer Originally published in Issue 5, Volume 32 of The University Register on Friday, November 8, 2019
Last Sunday, November 3, Morris was taken on a journey through the influence of jazz music on wind ensembles, with Symphonic Winds’ second concert of the semester, Life in the Groove. The concert took place at Morris Area Elementary School and was open to the public, free to attend. The program included six pieces, all of which featured solos from UMM students, as well as faculty. At the beginning of the concert, there was a brief introduction by Symphonic Winds director Simon Tillier, as well as from visiting conductor and educator, Dr. Milt Allen.
Soon after, the first piece, John Zdechlik’s “Chorale and Shaker Dance,” began. This particular piece has been played time and time again for its use of the well-known Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts,” with the original chorale first heard at the beginning of the piece, followed by a thundering progression, a brief shift in tone, and later a reappearance of the Shaker tune in its traditional form at the end of the piece, with trumpet and upper woodwinds clashing in a spiritual countermelody.
The second piece, Robert Sheldon’s “Metroplex,” was heavily influenced by American composers Clifton Williams and Alfred Reed. With a powerful start, the melody of the piece is bustling with energy, using urban jazz to transport the listener to a crowded metropolis, before the tune turns somewhat somber and bittersweet. “Metroplex” felt like three songs in one, which is exactly what Sheldon intended: complex and winding, like New York City. The third piece, David Amram’s “En Memoria de Chano Pozo,” takes inspiration from AfroCuban dance music, and it celebrates Chano Pozo, the Cuban musician often credited as the father of Latin jazz. There is a lively piano melody accompanied by percussion playing in a 2/4 clave, which is soon replaced by a guaguanco, a subgenre of Cuban rumba. The piece is further immersed into the rhythms of Cuban music, leading up to the ensemble clapping in four distinctive sections. The piece closes with the main theme being brought back in a wave of gusto from the full ensemble.
There is a beautiful solo before the close, which was performed by Jonathan Campbell, assistant professor, on tenor saxophone. The fourth piece, John Mackey’s “Undertow,” which was conducted by Dr. Allen, is filled to the trim with ostinato rhythms and alternating meters (4/4 and 7/8) written by a composer who is well known for writing wind ensemble pieces. According to Desmond Homann, oboe, the piece was directly influenced by “The Legend of Zelda” series. An undertow is defined as a spinning current that pulls ships underwater, and Mackey certainly leads the listeners into an undertow of melodies. The only word that I could think of to describe this piece would be “mighty.”
The fifth piece, Morton Gould’s “Ballad for Band,” is a staple in jazz repertoire. Following a strong romantic element, 1940s jazz and dance forms are easily lined within the piece. With rich quartal harmonies and cleverly stacked pyramid chord structures, “Ballad for Band” is a marvelous piece to hear, as well as to perform, due to the level of technique required to pull it off.
Last, but certainly not least, Frank Ticheli’s “Blue Shades” closed the evening’s concert. While the piece is titled “Blue Shades,” there are no actual blues progressions. However, the piece is dominated by blues notes -- flatted thirds, fifths, and sevenths -- as well as blues harmonies, rhythms, and melodic idioms. There are also several small sections within the piece paying tribute to the music of the Big Band era. With a slow and haunting middle section, followed by an exciting solo performed by Madison Grimsbo on clarinet, the energy builds until the clashing of the splash cymbal spells out the end of an exhilarating repertoire.
Dr. Allen is a 26-year veteran of the rehearsal room, with 17 years of teaching in public school and the founder/executive director of “The Music Guerilla,” furthering music, artistry, and education through whatever avenues available. He currently serves as music department chair at Kansas Wesleyan University. Dr. Milt Allen was invited by Native American Student Success to guest conduct this concert because of his strong passion for music, as well as his delightful personality. When asked about Dr. Allen’s teaching process, Tillier remarked, “Milt Allen is a highly energetic conductor -- full of creativity -- who has an amazing ability to connect with the musicians he works with. The students recognized this from the very first rehearsal and enjoyed his down-to-earth approach to music-making.”
Aside from guest conducting Life in the Groove, Dr. Allen also taught several clinics and workshops at local schools during his joyful but fleeting time in Morris.