Bill Evans Leads UH Students On a Jazz Odyssey

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"Jazz is a language," Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist Bill Evans said to a small crowd gathered inside the University of Houston's Moores School of Music Opera House green room Tuesday evening. He and Noe Marmolejo, the band director, were prefacing a night of music performed by the UH Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Orchestra, student ensembles Evans had spent the past eight days preparing.

A world-renowned jazz artist, Evans expressed his delight at waking up in the same place for the past week, a brief rest before he starts a world tour on April 26, including a much smaller trip to the Katy Jazz Festival on April 29.

Evans is at UH by way of the Moore's School of Music's Vacek Jazz Artist Residency Program, which brings veteran jazz educators and/or musicians to the UH music program's jazz students for a week of rehearsals, private lessons and master classes, culminating in a concert featuring the jazz ensemble and orchestra and the participating artist-in-residence.

Evans is the program's second artist-in-residence; the first was Dan Haerle, professor emeritus at the University of North Texas, who taught and performed with the bands last November. The artist-in-residence program is underwritten by UH alum and former jazz student Jeff Vacek and is scheduled to feature two musicians a year for the next five years -- or perhaps, Marmolejo hopes, longer.

"This is something unique," Evans said of the residency program. "You can count on one hand the number of universities that are actually doing this."

"To a lot of people, it's just a bunch of notes that are scattered together, and somehow they end at the same time," he said later, this time to a larger crowd gathered inside the Moores Opera House. "And it is."

Stressing the use of jazz as language, he added, "They're playing sentences, paragraphs, phrases... you put it together, and you're saying something." For the next two hours, the two bands spoke the language of emotion, beginning with the Jazz Ensemble's "Sing, Sang, Sung."

Sing, Sing, Sing The 22-person Jazz Ensemble began the concert, performing three songs before Evans and the 24-member Jazz Orchestra appeared. Playing off of Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," from Gordon Goodwin's 2001 album Swingin' for the Fences, "Sing, Sang, Sung" was an explosive opener, featuring ballsy trumpet blasts that sang to the back of the theater, and a fat trombone solo courtesy of Aaron Houzvicka.

Sensual The ensemble's second performance, "Tell Your Story," communicated a far different feeling than the previous song. What composer Bob Florence created -- a slow, melancholy groove -- was performed with such efficacy by the jazz ensemble as to induce romantic feelings for the rest of the night. Marmolejo even stepped off the podium for this one, blowing his own trumpet solo in tandem with Brett Bousley's guitar and Thanushka Lewkebandera's piano.

Scary Wayne Shorter's "Sole Stains (Shadow of the Arch)" sounds like something you'd hear seconds before a climactic scene in Scooby Doo; much of the work was performed as bursts of deep, staccato notes by baritone saxophonist Matt Singletary.

Sophisticated "Woody's Gold Star" was laid-back, almost transporting one to the comfortable grass at Discovery Green, where other jazz artists have been holding Thursday night concerts in celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month. Caity Piccini's flute solo was certainly appreciated.

Secretive Gordon Goodwin's "A Game of Inches" might as well be the next theme song for the next big spy movie, as its pacing trumpets and rambling guitar raised blood pressures throughout the theater. Unexpectedly, the second half of this song may be described as subtle, as it relaxed into a lovely melody using the piano and Darrel Materum's soprano saxophone as the key components.

Soulful Though the Jazz Ensemble made way for the Jazz Orchestra three songs in, It wasn't until the sixth song that Evans made his appearance on "Soulbop," a funk, bebop and hip-hop triptych melded together by Evans' improvisational saxophone toots. And speaking of saxophones...

Saxophonist It was impossible to describe this song as a feeling; instead, "Cool Eddie," composed by Evans, is a song that featured he and the jazz orchestra's saxophones in abundance. "Cool Eddie" is also a tribute dedicated to the musician's friend, the late Eddie Harris.

Song of Love Or, to put it plainly, love song. "Let's Pretend" very closely resembled the Jazz Ensemble's "Tell Your Story" in its emotive interpretation. Our favorite of the night, the song was R&B in flavor, with a long space for a delicate piano solo that made way for the growling rise of trumpets and trombones behind it.

Schizophrenic "Glyph" allowed the arranging efforts of assistant director Ryan Gabbart to shine through. The nutty feel of the song was owed in part to its mixed meter; slow in some places, fast in others, a continuous trade-off of 4/4 and 6/8 time

Standard Evans sprung this on us as a surprise. It was not listed in the playbill; instead, he, a bassist, a drummer and a pianist alone performed "Alone Together," labeled as a traditional jazz standard. "It's the kind of stuff [you work on] in improvisation class," he said. "Like a bebop tune."

Soulgrass The night's finale was the title song from Evans' album of the same name. Just as explosive as the first performance, "Soulgrass" incorporated all parts of the orchestra working together -- mostly. Of course, Evans featured his legendary saxophone skills, this time with UH student guitarist Trent Minter giving him a run for his money with a killer solo that could teach a rock band a thing or two.

The Vacek Jazz Artist Residency Program began in 2012. Tuesday's concert was part of Jazz Appreciation Month, as designated by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. For more information about Jazz Appreciation Month, visit SmithsonianJazz.org. Visit uhjazz.com for more information on the University of Houston's jazz program.

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