Tucked away off of a side street on a windy Tuesday night, Oct. 29, the UC Jazz Ensembles pulled its advanced combos together to deliver an energy-laden performance tiered with dynamic compositions and effervescent playing. Members of the Berkeley community gathered in Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse to tune in to what the combos — directed by Frank Martin, Dann Zinn and Ted Moore — were going to lay down. “Jazz” was handled with a high degree of elasticity, as combos shifted from the dreamy and mythical to uproarious and chaotic in the span of a heartbeat.
The night started with Moore performing a small piece of his own, with an introduction filled out by a “hello” and “How are you?” before passing off the hosting reigns to Joe Escobar. Escobar has been a member of UC Jazz for eight years and is the current instructor for beginner combos. As a member of Zinn’s combo, Escobar doubles as the pianist and arranger with three of the four pieces played credited to his name.
Martin’s combo kicked the night off with a rapturous performance of “Lost Tribes of Lemuria,” which lifted the audience into a heavenly race. As the most instrumentally dense ensemble of the night, Martin’s combo was buoyed by its three saxophonists, who threaded their sounds together in an uplifting, cathartic statement.
The band’s fluency in improvisation was the most remarkable aspect, as seven musicians created enough space for each other to let their personalities shine through. The performers never stepped on the toes of one another; when one instrument took hold of the spotlight, the others would slip away into the background where they’d tap their feet and steadily admire their teammates’ prowess. The open secret throughout the night was how much the players loved the genre they moved in. Band members performed as much for themselves as they performed for the audience, and a genuine sense of fun captured the stage for the entire performance, which lasted two and a half hours. Musicians challenged and redefined the genre, as they swung from hard bop to spiritual jazz while keeping a consistent core of talent.
Zinn’s quartet — composed of keys, bass, guitar and drums — filled out the next set. Escobar launched the band into a piece of his own making, “Of Questionable Taste,” which was an arrangement shelved by Escobar until it was dusted off years later such as the title suggests. The off-kilter song commences with a lumbering piano part, snowballing into a thrush of arpeggios, as the remaining instruments latch on to a riotous blend of chords. The number was catching its breath after each crescendo, which imbued it with goofy and charming idiosyncrasies.
The band’s next tune was another Escobar arrangement, “Strawberry Pop Tart,” and as the players were about to launch off, the lighting morphed into a cozy red to align with the mood. “Strawberry Pop Tart” was a breezy, playful and polite piece upheld by the exploratory guitar playing of Satcher Hsieh. The group finished its set with a song arranged by drummer Kevin Cruse, “Witchhunt,” which had Cruse’s swirling drum rhythms wrap around the grooves of every other member to culminate in phantasmagoric bursts of energy.
It’s important to note that at this point, the concert was breaching its second hour of playing time, which simply put, is a lot of jazz to handle. This is not a fault of the players, as their vibrant stylings were upheld throughout the entire show. Still, audience members were beginning to shift in their seats, so the concert could have benefited from a shorter set list to give each combo the proper respect it deserves.
That being said, the final set that was performed during the evening, Moore’s combo, brought back the saxophone section to revive subsections of hard bop and post-bop for the modern ear. The Freddie Hubbard piece “Birdlike” was cool, clean and confident, as the drumming of Cy Grimsich guided the band, and the melodic bass groves of Brian Thorsen complimented each section. By finishing out on Moore’s combo, the UC Jazz Ensembles concert went out on a high note.
Highlights: “Lost Tribes of Lemuria,” “Strawberry Pop Tart,” “Alpha Punk”
Contact Jake Lilian at [email protected].