Rio Americano High jazz band welcomes musician Wynton Marsalis
The latest edition of high school jazz AM ensemble Rio Americano is only three weeks old, but on Sunday they were gearing up for the biggest moment of their young musical lives.
The world-renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, on a rare Sunday between performances — a two-night engagement last week at the Hollywood Bowl and shows in the Bay Area and Reno — spent the after -noon with the students in workshop and public rehearsal before a special evening show.
It would be a dream day for the young band, capped off by a dream concert that night at the opening of the Arden Arcade campus for the famous orchestra featuring Wynton Marsalis, the trumpet giant, award-winning composer Pulitzer Prize winner, educator and face of jazz for a generation. .
“It’s a real honor that they come here. It’s a great experience to rub shoulders with the giants,” said Josh Murray, director of the AM ensemble, who is now approaching 25 years at the helm. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s up there.
Murray’s young musicians understood and savored the moment, made more special after a year and memories returned to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It gave us this tremendous motivation after a year without much interest,” said pianist Salome Ospina, one of the new members of the ensemble. “I’m really grateful to be a part of this.”
On Sunday afternoons, the ensemble rehearsed compositions they would perform before the orchestra set during the evening, written by two of the genre’s most revered figures: pioneering pianist Mary Lou Williams; and legendary bassist and composer Charles Mingus, polishing the charts under the approving eyes and ears of Jazz at Lincoln Center, trombonist-composer-arranger Chris Crenshaw and drummer Obed Calvaire.
“Playing, as they played – it serves as a legacy in a way,” said Anna Wilson, the ensemble’s baritone saxophonist. “It perpetuates the memory of these great players.”
That’s been the goal of Jazz at Lincoln Center since its founding in 1987. The 15-member ensemble is made up of some of the finest musicians and composers in music working today.
Equally important is Jazz at Lincoln Center’s educational mission, providing a jazz program to more than 5,000 high schools through its Essentially Elllington program while promoting and cultivating music through its annual Essentially Competition and Festival. Ellington High School Jazz Band in New York. The competition is the nation’s largest for high school jazz bands and features the works of Duke Ellington.
Eleven times Rio Americano has performed in the competition. The banners hang on a wall in the rehearsal room in Rio, facing the multicolored flags of countries where bands from years past have played. Six of Rio’s number were honored among the festival’s top instrumentalists at last year’s festival at the vaunted center, four of whom are now playing in this year’s set.
Rio’s 18-member ensemble welcomed Crenshaw and Calvary with the brassy bounce of Williams’ “Roll ‘Em,” his classic 1937 composition for Benny Goodman, with clarinetist Paloma Cobb Silva’s vocal solo work standing out.
“Is that what you find at three weeks?” asked an impressed Crenshaw. “It was beautiful. Keep working on that, but keep your identity together. With Mary Lou Williams, keep that steady beat, that steady pulse, then it’s all gonna jump.
For the next 90 minutes, Crenshaw on baton, Calvaire working closely with the rhythm section, dissects the tunes with the young musicians. They coached them on the tempo and pitch of the songs and urged a soloist on a soaring passage (“When you get to that A-flat gig, you have to sing it,” Crenshaw told trumpet player Brady Kerr. “You “must establish yourself on the main trumpet.”).
Calvaire briefly sat behind the drums to guide drummer Zachary Long through Mingus’ lavish ballad, “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.” For Long, a quick study and the group, the payoff was immediate; Long injecting new drama with a roll of his low tom and a wash of cymbals to sign off the dramatic horn entry.
“It was a different way of playing the drums. He showed me how to add more to make it feel better. It immediately improved the sound of the horns,” Long said after the afternoon session.
The group from Rio earned the guest appearance. The touring group knows the band well and has penciled in the date months before the orchestra’s West Coast swing. The orchestra calls on Essentially Ellington Schools close to their tour dates for sessions like Sunday’s.
One of the nation’s top high school jazz programs for two decades, Rio Americano has racked up accolades and been an almost annual entry at the Ellington Festival. They may well return this year, continuing the shared legacy on Sunday afternoon.
“They’ve got the pedigree,” Lincoln Center trombonist Crenshaw said after the AM set’s afternoon rehearsal. “They really listen to each other and understand that they are part of something bigger than themselves. We may see them in New York if they keep up this pace.