Ferst Center hosts Jazz Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra for Halloween extravaganza

Wednesday, Oct. 28, The Ferst Center for the Arts hosted the Georgia Tech Jazz Ensemble and the Georgia Tech Symphony Orchestra. The program was divided into two parts, one for each group, respectively. The entire night was under the supervision of Ron Mendola, the director of both groups.

The Jazz Ensemble consisted of about 15 students playing horns (tenor and baritone saxophones, trombones and trumpets), guitars, drums and keyboards. The Symphony Orchestra, however, has nearly one hundred students playing a wide variety of instruments.

The first half, by the Jazz Ensemble, was pleasantly succinct. Without being overly long, it gave a rare look into the jazz world. Jazz music is both easy and hard to come by these days. There seem to be plenty of part-time musicians playing classics in coffeehouses, but actual jazz bands almost have to be hunted down. Jazz has lost its allure to pop culture and has fallen by the wayside as a novelty from another era.

The Georgia Tech Jazz Ensemble has only academic aspirations, so it is free from the pressure of the penny. They are free to learn the music just for the joy of it, and it shows. The individual instrumentalists are there for the love of the sport, which brings an extra richness. Unified by a love of music and a rainbow of khaki, these mostly classically trained musicians try their hand at jazz.

The Georgia Tech Jazz Ensemble is great. They move and groove to the music, defying the audience to do the same. Always looking to their evanescently humorous fearless leader, they seemed to be a heap of players, not a united front. This in no way detracts from the listening experience.

Eyes closed, it is easy to imagine the heyday of jazz. The lack of guiding lyrics really let the mind go and wander. This combined with the visceral nature of jazz makes for a time-bending experience excellently executed.

The only fly in the ointment was the ensemble’s guest vocalist. She distracted form the experience in several ways. She sounded like she had classical training, which, for example, does not take advantage of methods like swing notes, which jazz uses profusely. The moments that required a distinctly jazz perspective, and are therefore the essence of the song, were the weakest. She sounded like a soprano and so struggled with that lower, more alto-friendly, sound of jazz. Overall, she was overly bright and did not embody the blues spirit. Technically, she had some pitch problems and her vowel shapes were terrible. While probably able to excellently execute an aria, being a jazz singer requires a soul she ultimately failed to bare.

At about half an hour, the ensemble did not wear out its welcome. While probably boring some, it left at least as many others wanting more. It was a jazz performance for the masses. It was not too long, and assumed the audience knew a minimal amount, educating all along without sounding pretentious or pedantic. It was a refreshing glimpse into a world almost forgotten by the public conscience.

The Georgia Tech Symphony Orchestra played several Halloween-appropriate, programmatic pieces, including “Danse Macabre,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Thriller,” among others.

The orchestra executed their work very well, with plenty of emotion and drama to spare. With a scant three and a half weeks to learn about an hour of music, they especially did very well. According to Mendola’s comments, during the concert was one of the first times they all brought it all together and played well.

The guest pianist for Beethoven’s sweeping piano concerto No.5 had some kind of magic fingers. He completely blew away everyone. He probably played the over fifteen minute part (without music) better than many professionals. It was an honor just to watch.

Hearing an entire live orchestra play “Thriller” was exciting. The same student from the jazz ensemble was joined by another guest for a duet version of the song, arranged by Mendola. The guest vocalists did their job without demanding too much attention. Male vocalist was much more impressive, incorporating several Jackson mannerisms, striking the right note, tributing Jackson, not imitating him. A more show stopping presence by the vocalists would have been preferred. Despite this, and the preemptive applause from the onstage “clap-estra,” the song was a success and closed out the night well.

Musical talent is apparently hidden among the Yellow Jackets. For having no music major, the students blew away any first-timer’s expectations of engineers playing symphonic and jazz music. Who knew a group of people like aerospace engineers could play such demanding music with such precision? Any mechanical engineer with talent like this should perhaps rethink their career path. The student musicians are exceptional, as are their ensembles, and definitely worth your time.