The Stanford Jazz Orchestra swings at Bing

March 2, 2015, 10:43 p.m.

Big bands have big sounds, and the Stanford Jazz Orchestra is no exception. On Wednesday night, longtime director Fred Berry led his group through a set of swing, Latin and funk at Bing Concert Hall, taking full advantage of the dynamic range of the large ensemble to create engaging and sometimes explosive music. The band was joined by Grammy Award-winning baritone saxophonist Dr. Aaron Lington, who currently serves as the coordinator of jazz studies at San Jose State University. Lington contributed several originals to the evening’s set and delivered a stellar performance in his own right.

The group opened its set with the fast, foot-tapping swing tune “Once Around” by noted trumpeter and composer Thad Jones. The next song, “Ishfahan,” by legendary big band arranger and composer Billy Strayhorn, was a moody ballad featuring the gifted alto saxophonist Gabriel Barajas ’17.

The band’s first piece with Lington was one of his originals, the “So-Hay Shuffle,” which featured a bluesy melody and was punctuated by crisp, unison horn hits. Later in the set, Lington took his fellow woodwinds for a ride with his fast-paced original “Spinner,” a bebop-inspired tune featuring rapid sax melodies and solos from each member of the section. Another highlight was Lington’s “Point Aconi,” which he wrote with the unusual intention of avoiding structural repetition. Aside from a few recurring rhythmic motifs, the piece kept changing from beginning to end, all while maintaining a tranquil and reflective theme.

Lington played with impressive speed and sophisticated phrasing. Unfortunately, from my seat in the back of Bing, his rapid runs sounded rather unarticulated. Bing’s acoustics are notorious for muddling lower register sounds, and it seems that Lington’s baritone was the hall’s latest victim.

Acoustics aside, it was the band behind Lington that really captured my attention. The Jazz Orchestra is somewhat of a rag-tag group, drawing on talent not only from the student body but occasionally from local high schools and professional circles as well. Like any student group, members come and go according to their workload. This sort of fluidity can prevent cohesion, and the music certainly suffers from turnovers in personnel. At one point in the evening, Berry playfully lamented that “no professors at Stanford really care about the music,” seeming to suggest that art isn’t the priority it ought to be. The Jazz Orchestra is a superbly talented group of musicians, but you have to wonder what they might accomplish with a little more continuity behind the stands.

In any case, talent is talent, and with Berry at the helm, the band is remarkably tight. On Wednesday night, the horn sections played with precision, the rhythm section held steady and most transitions went off without a hitch. Aside from a few minor adjustments from Berry here and there, the band seemed to run itself — a sign of a surprisingly mature ensemble, and no doubt a reflection of hard work being put in behind the scenes.

Overall, the evening was delightful. Whenever Berry took the microphone to speak to the audience, he was charming and seemed genuinely proud of his students. And not without reason — on a campus where arts are often forced to the back seat, the Stanford Jazz Orchestra stands out as an undeniable bright spot.

You can contact Benjamin Sorensen at bcsoren ‘at’

Benjamin Sorensen covers jazz for the Arts & Life section of the Stanford Daily. He is a junior from Stanford, California studying political science with interests in Chinese and music. He enjoys playing guitar, talking about music, and wishing he could sing. Contact him at bcsoren ‘at’

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