When the last note died Saturday morning at Swan’s Landing near Sandpoint, everyone knew something special had happened.
Last Saturday’s concert was the final of three shows that featured the faculty and students of the Schweitzer Institute of Music jazz department.
The audacious, free-wheeling performance proved that, as bass player and master of ceremonies Ed Schuller put it, jazz is many things.
The show opened with soaring post-bop performed masterfully by three faculty members - Schuller, saxophonist and Downbeat magazine’s Jazz Musician of the Year Joe Lovano, and drummer Billy Hart - and concluded with Schuller leading a student group in a rendition of the Ghanian folk tune “Togo.”
Between those bookends, a variety of groups played straight-ahead and progressive jazz, jazz based on the modalities and rhythms of Turkish music and a John Zorn “game piece” that amused both participants and spectators. A Lovano-led saxophone quintet played three vigorous and complex pieces and Ed Schuller’s brother, George, leader of a Boston big band called Orange Then Blue, steered a large ensemble through two bursting-at-the-seams pieces.
“I keep promising something different,” Schuller said more than once Saturday, like John Cleese in an old Monty Python routine. “Well, here’s some completely different.”
Throughout, the show sustained the same high-quality musicianship and high-voltage energy that were the hallmarks of all the jazz department performances. If only a handful of listeners remained at the end of the three-hour show, chalk it up to adventuresome programming; no concessions were made to the tastes of the heartland.
Things got under way nearly a month ago, with an informal mountaintop set by the school’s faculty, Schuller, Lovano, Hart and pianist Kenny Werner.
The next day, the instructors and their 21 students began work on the material that would be heard in three public shows - one on the mountain, one at The Met in Spokane and Saturday’s concert on the lakeshore just south of Sandpoint.
Four separate ensembles, each under the direction of an instructor, performed the first two shows. Selections ranged from well-known jazz charts to unorthodox experiments written by the students and, in some cases, by faculty members.
At The Met show, the Kenny Werner-led group turned the small crowd on its ear with a daring set that centered on the original compositions of Canadian tenor sax student Sundar Viswanathan. Viswanathan’s atonal Indian-accented arrangements were based on harmonics foreign to Western ears.
“We tried to make dissonance so unified it became consonance,” Werner said later. “We tried to make those dissonant intervals sound like romance.”
That challenge fell primarily to vocalist Judi Silvano, a professional singer and wife of Joe Lovano, and student trumpeter David Ballou; their close-interval work walked the ragged edge of harmony.
“It’s a mental challenge, to start with that intent, to get that blend,” Silvano said the morning after the show. “I look at that interval…as a beautiful thing.”
She and Ballou beamed at each other as she exited the stage at the song’s conclusion.
All the shows were filled with memorable moments: student saxophonist Eric Rasmussen leading Lovano and three other sax players through his original composition “Nut House;” Angie Sanchez’ passionate piano solos; Rob Uffin’s beautiful bass solo on a composition written by student pianist Arthur Goldstein; Sandpoint’s baby-faced young bass trumpet acer Adrian Morgan shyly blowing a rich solo on Joe Henderson’s ballad “Serenity;” drummer Billy Hart listening intently to a student group playing a Turkish tune in 9/8 time.
What a treat, too, to watch the seasoned pros playing as exuberantly with students at an upstairs pub gig as they would with a gang of world-class players on the world’s greatest stages.
It says a lot about the character of the program, the players and the music: The Schweitzer Institute has become a flashpoint for great jazz in the Inland Northwest.
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