UC Jazz ends midterm season on a high note

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

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The time: midterm season, the unrelentingly-hellish Olympiad that reduces students to wretched revenants, condemned to wander campus in a sleep-deprived stupor. The place: ASUC Student Union.

Your mind swims in a problem set, and you’ve got a paper begging to be written. A beat kicks in. A bass drum’s low thud alternates with a snare’s crisp smack, which nudges piano chords and a swaying bass line forward. You look up and notice a five-piece jazz band. A trumpet and a trombone announce themselves, launching into a jam that turns your Cram Session of Doom into something swankier and classier, a Study Interlude of Jazz.

For many students, UC Jazz’s noon concerts at the ASUC Student Union provide relief from the stress and monotony of academics. In fact, UC Jazz has been providing such relief for more than 50 years, according to UC Jazz director Ted Moore. As such, the noon concerts have become integral to the history of UC Jazz.

UC Jazz’s noon concerts are something of an enigma. They’re free performances that are presented in an unassuming venue — the ground floor of the ASUC Student Union — whose open windows and cleared-out floors evoke a certain democratization of music that can be hard to find in other spaces.

This is reflective of UC Jazz itself, which, as a music program, is unique among other universities for being geared toward non-music majors. “This is open to all kinds of people,” said Moore. “If they’re a jazz musician, they want to be able to play. Very often, people decide to come to UC Berkeley because they have a chance to play in UC Jazz,” said Moore.

If noon concerts are a reprieve for students, they have a similar effect for the musicians themselves, who each have the chance to play a noon concert. For UC Jazz guitarist Nathan Le, music offers a much-welcome distraction from the rigor of academics. “You can just focus on music,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about a problem set you have to do or math or English or books you have to read. That’s what UC Jazz brings.”

In fact, playing jazz makes it hard to think about anything other than the next note to play, because much of jazz is improvised. Bassist Brian Thorsen said that the rhythm section is usually only aware of how a song begins and ends. “Sometimes if you hear someone taking a solo and they start playing a certain pattern, then the drums will start following the same rhythmic pattern along with them,” said UC Jazz flautist and trombonist Kelly Wong. “There is some structure to it but also the feeling of freedom.”

The feeling of freedom that Wong mentioned was on full display during last Thursday’s noon concert, UC Jazz’s penultimate noon concert before its last on Nov. 17. Trumpeter Abraham Padilla and trombonist Chris Liu had their eyes shut for every solo, letting their fingers dance across the buttons without the restraint of any formal structure. Likewise, pianist Ben Harper spontaneously produced nimble piano riffs that led drummer Arjun Vasudevan and bassist Patrick Thompson to new rhythmic territories.

In this regard, jazz becomes an unspoken conversation between its players. “Even within the same tune, you can recognize who’s playing right away by the things they say,” said Moore. “It’s about developing a personal language you want to use when it comes to soloing.”

For Le, the conversational elements of jazz lend a certain connectivity that makes playing more rewarding. “You show up here and you play music, connect with people, and you don’t have to explain yourself. You just express yourself musically. I think that’s a really beautiful thing, to be able to connect with people like that,” he said.

UC Jazz Ensemble is performing its Fall 2016 showcase on Nov. 20.

Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].

A previous version of this article misspelled Brian Thorsen’s name.