By Ryan Cooper
Jazz music is wholly unique unto itself. From the improvisation, the freeform pieces, the collective nature of taking bits and pieces from blues, folk and world music, the notes held for minutes at a time to the short, staccato bursts, jazz uses every tool in the musical wheelhouse to create experiences unlike anything else in the world.
It’s a musical form that both harnesses emotional agony and a seductive calm, interstitching the two into pieces simultaneously overwhelming, beautiful and pure. That feeling, the feeling of being the only person in a crowded room, the feeling of serenity amidst a storm, the feeling of drowning in musical ecstasy was properly evoked during Cleveland State’s jazz concert last Monday, Sept. 25.
I took my seat about 10 minutes before the concert began, slinking into an empty aisle along the perimeter of Drinko Hall’s seating. I wanted to enjoy the music without being interrupted or jostled by somebody’s tapping foot or fingers dancing along to the music. I turned to look through the hall to see who composed the audience this night. Family members, friends and fellows of the school of music and its students, but not many others
Playing gold standards of jazz like Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” and then transitioning to the smooth, soulful “Black Frost” by Grover Washington, The Other Rights – the self-given name of the jazz ensemble that played before us – masterfully mixed the classics with contemporary pieces, showing not only their tastes, but their range. I was already impressed by the night’s explosive opening by Crystal Burks on drums, and the harmony of the brass ensemble composed of John McAvinue on trumpet and Jalen McKinnie and Joe Kardos rounding it out on their saxophones, but it was the surprise addition of the dulcet, sultry tones of Mist’A Craig that carried the music into a new world.
The instrumental pieces alone were lively and well-played, but George Gershwin’ “Summertime” went from being an operatic aria to a seductive siren call lulling the audience into a state of euphoria. Foregoing the classically used violins and woodwind instruments for the rhythmic notes of Scott Hanna on guitar well paired with Derrick Spiva on the piano, “Summertime” perfectly illustrated the talent of The Other Rights to adapt and change the musicality of the works while maintaining the emotional draw.
After the pieces played by The Other Rights, a brief interlude passed, allowing for the second concert of the night: a quartet composed of Breegan Arnett on saxophone, Jeremey Poparad on rhythm guitar, Amanda Johnson on the bass and the stand-out of the well-groomed group, Michael Hibbler on drums. While the former three members of the group stood together in solid black, Hibbler looked uncharacteristically disheveled, wearing a pair of tan pants and a buttoned-up shirt without an accompanying tie. Perhaps it was a matter of being a living accent wall, allowing for something in the band to stand out visually, or maybe it was a visual metaphor for what jazz is – a collection of tempered constraint mixed with raw emotion and pain. Mayhaps it was simply a matter of a busy schedule and not enough time to change outfits. Whatever the reason, Hibbler’s attire stood out, and made his work stand out even more than if he had been dressed in suit with his partners.
All of the members of the quartet played brilliantly, but Hibbler’s performance on the drums was altogether different. His standout work showed off the best attributes of The Other Rights’ three drummers: Crystal Burks, Owen Barba and Mark Butto. While Burks showed a tempered fervor, Barba a stoic state of blues-based rhythm, and Butto a frenzied eruption, Hibbler combined all three in a manner so natural, so calm, so well put together, that he exuded nothing but pure ease and comfort throughout the night.
The second half of the night with Arnett’s quartet started off with “26 2” by John Coltrane. The song was played well, but perhaps the best part was Poparad’s story that followed. While learning the song, he commented that he saw a lot of stickers in the windows of cars that read ‘26.2,’ leaving him with the impression that a there were an unusually large amount of Coltrane fans in the world. Much to his chagrin, however, he quickly learned that the number in question wasn’t a reference to Coltrane’s song, but rather the number of miles ran by marathoners.
It was these moments, the personable looks behind the curtain that punctuated the night, that connected the performers to the audience the most. Poparad’s marathon story, Mist’A Craig’s story of wanting to name the ensemble group The Alfre-Joes (a combination of the music directors’ names of Alfredo Gurrieri and Joe Miller) and department Chair John Perrine’s Voldemort impression all transformed the night from one of musical appreciation to one of genuine enjoyment and comfort. Simply put, by the end of the night, I had forgotten that I was at a concert; I had been transported to the end of a great first date, sipping wine and talking about French cinema over a shared plate of cheeses and charcuteries, only to realize hours later that the night had passed, the sun was rising, and then I opened my eyes to find myself sitting, once again, in Drinko Hall.
These weren’t just musicians using their tools, but rather people with humor, with faults, with hopes and dreams, students who are working to improve their craft and be standout performers. It was a night that showed students at their best with the only disappointment being the number of people who missed out on the experience.