While the Stanford men don’t have a place in March Madness this year, another Cardinal underdog is quietly dominating a different scene. In a few weeks, Stanford’s top jazz combo will return to Monterey to compete in the Next Generation Jazz Festival for the second time in history, having made their inaugural appearance last year. With their sights set on taking home the top prize in April, they stopped at CoHo for a Monday night performance as winter quarter came to a close.
An accomplishment like theirs is likely to fly under the radar among Stanford’s prolific culture of achievement, but after talking to the group’s director, Jim Nadel ’72, their impressive back-to-back showing seems like a minor coup. Nadel isn’t afraid to flaunt Stanford’s underdog standing against the powerhouse jazz programs they’ll be facing in Monterey (and, of course, the ones they beat to get there). Submissions for the festival, one of the country’s premier showcases for young jazz musicians, are judged by a blind panel at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and only five college combos are selected for the final round.
Stanford’s jazz program, which Nadel has directed since 1972, is tiny compared to its rival institutions, and his students are often scientists and engineers rather than music majors, even at the top level. This year’s top group consists of pianist Malcolm Campbell (a third year Ph.D. student), guitarist Aris Kare ’18, drummer Johnny Weger ’18, bassist Zachary Ostroff ’16 and saxophonist Connor Anderson ’16. Kare is new to the group, while the rest are carry-overs from last year’s acclaimed lineup. While Nadel is their nominal director, he admits that the group are at their best when he steps aside and lets them experiment, citing their youthful ear for new sounds as one of their greatest strengths.
The group opens their night at the CoHo with “Frames,” a ballad composed and sung by Ostroff. Despite a few awkward encounters with the bottom of his vocal range, Ostroff manages to pull off a soulful performance while never missing a note on his other engagement, the bass. After the fading simmer of cymbals signals the end of round one, the combo jumps into a jaunty 1930s swing called “On The Trail.” Kare’s guitar leapfrogs through a stride riff, and Anderson’s alto soars above in a sustained hum. The rest of the band kicks in as the duo trades roles; their complementary but dissimilar timbres are well-pronounced in sing-song harmony before they each take on blistering solo endeavors.
The group closes with a composition by Campbell called “Seventh Step,” which channels the kinetic spirit of modern groups like Kendrick Scott’s Oracle and Eric Harland’s Voyager. It throws the set’s earlier tendency for comfort and simplicity out the window, and to great effect. Behind the kit, Weger unleashes a frenetic but controlled groove, marked by spontaneous rim shots and accents that manage to land off the beat in unexpected but undoubtedly hip ways. Watching him explore the minute fractions of each bar is like having someone scratch that deep musical itch you never knew you had.
When the combo visits Monterey next month, they’ll be playing among the best young jazz talent in America and vying for the grand prize — a spot among the best talent in the world at Monterey’s celebrated jazz festival in September. But regardless of the competition’s outcome, their achievements are pretty remarkable already. Coming from an underdog program, they’ve managed no small feat in going back-to-back as finalists, and to have done so as a self-directed gang of techies makes for a quintessentially Stanford story. But putting narrative aside, their performance at the CoHo suggests that the best way to appreciate this band’s accomplishments is to simply take a seat, and listen.
Contact Benjamin Sorensen at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.