By Georgia Norton // Lion Staff
The snare begins, a tight, steady rhythm; then the piano joins, and then a clarinet. A saxophone’s sustained notes drip from the stage, sweet and smooth, as blues and bossas fill the room. Lights are flashing against brass instruments as soloists stand up and sit down, bouncing melodies off of each other like a game of musical ping pong, the ensemble working as a single, well oiled machine. This was the recent Ellington Swing performance, and it was absolutely breathtaking.
Lovett’s Ellington Jazz Ensemble is incredible-- and it should be, as so much more than what meets the eye goes into each performance, and this year’s annual Swing show was no exception.
The group rehearses for hours a week, both in and out of class, to prepare for each show or competition. Dr. Pitchford, the ensemble director, said that the goal is “to get the music as tight, polished, and as soulful as we can.”
Freshman Aaron McFadden, the only freshman in the twenty-member ensemble, spoke to me about the importance of his practice routine. “I spend about half an hour a day practicing, and I have lessons for an hour every Sunday. Recently, I also started to listen to more jazz in my spare time to build off for when we improvise.”
Listening to the works of jazz giants, or even just average joes, helps players like Aaron to become more critical of the music, improve their improvisational skills, and become more familiar with the legends of the genre.
This is important as a jazz musician, as Dr. Pitchford admitted that “the music we perform is void without historical context,” and so to fully appreciate the pieces they play, the band spends time getting to know “the masters of this music-- Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and more.”
Yet, the history is not the only deciding factor for the pieces they play. “Each composition we select brings a brand new set of challenges,” said Dr. Pitchford, who’s decisions are based on “stylistic considerations, improvisational work-- most every song we perform has a improvisational component to it-- balance between brass, woodwinds, rhythm section, and vocals, and finally, our main focus was on making the music swing as hard as we can!”
Considerations and requirements aside, the most important part of making good music is the players. Each student brings remarkable work ethic, talent, and personality to the band, and Dr. Pitchford made that especially clear during the Swing concert, as he took breaks between each song to speak about a different individual.
Throughout the swing performance, the audience got to know each player as if they were a close friend, like Mikayla Jenifer, soon to attend the highly-selective Bard College Conservatory of Music; Richard Nolen, who could “speak to you for hours about any song or artist you could name;” Neil Patkar, who can “create solos that have a story arc comparable to those of the greats;” and Wilson Hobbs, who even put together his own mini-ensemble to play at the senior talent show earlier this year.
Aaron said that “as the only freshman, it was sort of intimidating at the start of the year, but everyone’s really nice and open, so I got to know them really well, really fast.”
Yet, there is some sadness in being so close to each ensemble member, as each of the twelve seniors of the twenty-member group will be missed all the more next year. Dr. Pitchford commented on this, saying that the seniors are “an incredible legacy of focus, talent, and dedication to our Ellington program. They’re all leaders in our ensemble, and we’ll miss their hard work ethic, but mostly, we’ll miss their dynamic personalities that contribute so importantly to the sound of our ensemble.”
The senior band members, though, have made the most of their time in the group. As a testament to this, Wilson Hobbs, Harrison Rodriguez, Ranier Young, Neil Patkar, Jonathan Aris, and Jay Sherman all performed at the senior talent show. The event was impressive, as every member bounced solos off of each other for almost the entire performance.
Wilson admitted that putting that talent show gig together, though, was no easy task. “We had to find times that worked for all six of us, and in rehearsals, keeping everyone on task was definitely a struggle,” he said. “I also didn’t have much to offer to the other musicians, since we have essentially the same experience level with our instruments.”
Wilson said that he’s going to miss this group. “We’ve faced a lot of challenges together,” he said, “and had a lot of good times, so leaving this awesome ensemble breaks my heart; however, I am excited to see what my future in music holds. I hope to continue playing bass in college, and after that as a hobby and with friends, and I’m grateful to Dr. P and Ellington for getting me involved in jazz in the first place.”
Yet, all of these components, from the incredible personalities and tight-knit bonds to the rehearsals and dedication, come together in the end for one incredible thing: the show.
“I take most pride when the band finally gets to perform for an audience,” said Dr. Pitchford, “It is in this moment that the music really matters. It uplifts, it brings joy, it gets our minds out of the stress of life, and hopefully, it makes us want to get up and dance.”