Festival Miami closes in style with all that jazz

By Lawrence Budmen

            Festival Miami concluded with a swinging party on Friday that brought jazz greats John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton to the Gusman Concert Hall stage. Leaders of their acclaimed Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, the duo collaborated with talented students of the Frost Concert Jazz Band and the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.  

            From his opening “It’s great to be in Orlando,” Clayton’s witty commentary and repartee with the audience was a constant delight. His arrangements were skillfully inventive, often veering from standard big band charts with spiky harmonic twists. Hamilton is a jazz drummer with few peers. His mastery of the trap set propelled both solo and ensemble pieces.  

            With the Frost band in top form, Clayton led heated arrangements of jazz firecrackers by Horace Silver and Johnny Hodges, spotlighting a hard bop sound. Terrific solo turns on trumpet, trombone and saxophone featured playing far above the student level. A gentler side of Clayton’s musical personality came to the fore with a beautiful swing arrangement of For All We Know. Clayton initially played the melody straightforwardly on his double bass , making the instrument sound remarkably like a cello. 

            Turning to the avant-garde jazz of Thelonious Monk, Clayton’s version of Evidence preserved the composer’s offbeat, astringent harmonies and quirky rhythms. Only in a slow, overly slick rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael classic Heart and Soul did Clayton briefly falter (after a lovely introductory duet for flute and bass).  

            Hamilton took the honors with a brilliant, lengthy percussive riff as introduction to an unabashedly sweet orchestration of Back Home Again in Indiana. A native Hoosier, Hamilton pounded away at lightning pace in an upbeat rhythm fest. 

            The program’s second half was considerably more ambitious, melding classical and jazz traditions with the combined jazz band and Mancini Institute Orchestra. Clayton’s Open Me First was commissioned by the late composer-conductor Jack Elliott, founder of the Mancini Institute (in its first incarnation in Los Angeles). Initially, Open Me First seems like another big band score with strings added. However, Clayton’s piece takes on a life of its own with lively string and elegant wind invention that recalls the perfumed scores of Jacques Ibert and Jean Francaix.  

            The C Zone, also written for the Mancini ensemble, is a mini piano concerto. By not attempting a lengthy, overly ambitious work, Clayton has succeeded where numerous other composers have failed in the attempt to blend jazz piano with large scale orchestral concepts.  This blues-oriented score is filled with sensuous melodies and spirited flights of pianistic exuberance. Angelo Versace, a fleet-fingered keyboard dynamo, dazzled in his solo turn. This UM student is a major talent.  

            Clayton’s Jubilation Celebration is a joy filled, New Orleans-flavored feast, abetted by great brass playing and lustrous, agile strings under the composer’s meticulous direction. For an encore, Hamilton returned with his own composition Max—definitely (in the words of a Mancini song) “le jazz hot.”

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Festival Miami closes in style with all that jazz”

  1. Posted Nov 02, 2009 at 9:40 am by Carol Blades

    Thanks for expressing so eloquently and expertly what I and my husband felt in our hearts about Friday night’s performance at UM. The UM Jazz Band is a local — no, in fact, a national — treasure! Reading your review brought back all the physical and emotional joy we experienced Friday night.

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Sat Oct 31, 2009
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