Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Combo, Mambo and the Music Lessons of Life

© Andrea Canter

“This is my first composition,” admitted Carson King-Fournier in introducing his “Winnipeg Mambo” to a nearly full house at Antonello Hall, The MacPhail Center for Music. If this is his first effort, I surely want to hear his second!

The young trombonist, headed to Juilliard in the fall, was on stage last week with the Dakota Combo, a septet of like-minded, prodigiously talented teen jazz artists directed by local trumpeter/educator Kelly Rossum. This concert closed the annual Jazz Thursdays series at MacPhail, and they ended the season with as much style as and arguably more enthusiasm than any of the other, far more experienced ensembles heard this season.

The Dakota Combo is a joint project of MacPhail and the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education. Conceived and initiated three years ago by Rossum—himself one of the most talented and creative jazz musicians in the region, the goal of the Combo is to bring together the best young jazz artists in the area to develop skills as small ensemble performers, composers and arrangers. Each September, area high schoolers audition for one of up to seven slots in the Combo. The chosen few spend the school year rehearsing with Rossum every other week. In December, a national guest artist joins them for rehearsal and a performance on the stage of the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis, and for an open clinic for area students. Later in the winter, the Combo spends a day “on the road,” visiting three Twin Cities schools to share their music and interact with students as young as fourth grade. Other performance opportunities are scheduled, including the concert at MacPhail and an appearance at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival.

Each year the competition, and consequently the level of performance, seems to rise a notch. And this year, the Combo also reflects a broader swath of young Minnesota musicians. Joe Strachan, pianist, comes in from Northfield. And saxophonist Ryan Freitas makes the 2-hour drive (each way) from Willmar. Determination (and supportive parents!) overcomes snowy highways.

I’ve been honored to follow the Combo program since the first ensemble in fall 2006. As a member of the DFJE Board, I have observed auditions, rehearsals, and school visits; attended gigs at the Dakota, Minnesota Music Educators’ convention, Nomad World Pub, summer jazz festival and MacPhail; interviewed Rossum and the young musicians; informally chatted with parents; and just last week, observed much of a recording session at Wild Sound Studios. This was a new component of the program and hopefully will become an annual activity—taking the students into a professional studio and recording their own music. It’s not likely to raise funds as much as disseminate interest in supporting jazz education, and it provides one more learning experience on the road to a jazz career.

Consistently across each edition of the Combo, and perhaps most clear among the current (third) ensemble, I am impressed with the depth of commitment expressed by these 17 and 18-year olds as well as their level of artistic vision. Each has an intensity of purpose and hunger to learn that goes well beyond desire to the level of necessity—they must play, they must learn to play better, they must jump on every opportunity. That horn, drum set, bass, piano is an extension of arms and legs and brain, and making music is as essential as breathing. Such observations have been made over the years about the geniuses of the art—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus.

As for “Winnipeg Mambo,” it was a filled with more tropical heat than winter gusts, sharp ensemble writing that energized the crowd at MacPhail as well as the band at Wild Sound. But to me the real tour de force for trombone came from bassist Cory Grindberg, whose “Faded” allows King-Fournier unlimited opportunities to pull a brass zoo of sounds from his instrument, suggestive of an Addams Family jam session. And a few months ago at the MME convention, when the trombonist was not available, “Faded” proved equally well suited to the antics of trumpeter (and soon-to-be New England Conservatory of Music student) Jake Baldwin. Each Combo musician will end his tenure with at least one memorable composition on record. Personally, another favorite comes from tenor saxophonist Tony Pistilli (headed to the fine jazz program at UW-Eau Claire). His “Aakar” swirls elegantly, conjuring ancient rites of the Holy Land.

Kelly Rossum is tenacious in his efforts to pull the most from his students, yet also holds high expectations for their independent musical decisions and is quick to downplay his role in their success. During the first big performance at the Dakota, he’s nearly invisible at a table in the mezzanine. At MacPhail, he makes a short introduction and vanishes into the middle of the audience. He gives them the tools, but not a script. He won’t lead the band—they learn to lead themselves, make their own mistakes, and write their own music.

“It’s not about scales,” Kelly said. “It’s about life.” And for these young artists, life and music are pretty much the same thing.

The current edition of the Dakota Combo has two more public performances – on June 19th at 4 pm at Mears Park in St. Paul’s Lowertown, opening the 2009 Twin Cities Jazz Festival; on July 18th at 11:30 am on Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis, opening the Student Stage segment of the Sommerfest music day. Watch for their CD! Check the Combo website for audition information for 2009-2010 at www.dakotacombo.com. Also check the Three Minute Egg for a video clip of the MacPhail performance and comments from students and Kelly Rossum at http://www.minnpost.com/braublog/2009/06/04/9292/arts_coverage_done_right_3_minute_egg_comes_to_tpt. MacPhail recently named bassist/educator Adam Linz to replace Rossum who will be moving to New York in September.

Photos: (Top) Carson King-Fournier at Antonello Hall; Cameron LeCrone in the percussion booth at Wild Sound; Joe Strachan ponders the Wild Sound piano; the Combo posed shortly after their first rehearsal. (Photos by Andrea Canter)