Jazz was in the air last week as two consecutive concerts proved that America's most syncopated sensation is alive and well in Oxford.
On Thursday night in Miami's Hall Auditorium, MU Jazz Ensemble put on their final performance of the semester. By the time the music began, half of the ground floor seats were filled by students, family members and jazz enthusiasts alike.
Student Alex Bronston's reasons for attending were three-fold.
"I came to support my friend," he said. "And I'm a music major, so I need to collect recital credits. Also, I just like jazz."
Twenty musicians performed nine songs as part of the Jazz Ensemble, playing trumpet, trombone, guitar, piano, bass, drums, percussion and all three types of saxophone -- alto, tenor and baritone.
The songs of choice were lively and classic, including hits by jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The swinging style of the big band invoked a bygone era; with eyes closed, it wasn't difficult to imagine the music pouring out of a smoky, blue-lit club in 1920s L.A. or New York.
With the start of each piece, the lights on stage shifted to a different cool shade of purple, magenta, blue or red. Occasionally, they would catch on the shiny surface of a saxophone or guitar, reflecting sun-like spots of light onto the audience.
Although the student performers are amateurs in their art, they dressed like professionals in all black, and played with passion and without noticeable mistake. Soloists stood during their appointed moments to take charge of the song, improvising each piece to make it different than it had ever been played before. Each solo was followed by a short burst of applause from the audience.
Improvisation is a key part of any jazz performance. Overall, Director Jeremy Long estimated that about half of the night's show was improvised.
"I thought it went really well," Long said. "Leading up to the performance, students are always stressed about certain parts and putting this all together, but, usually in the end, everything comes together. I felt great about it."
On Friday, in the Victorian-style North Parlor of the Oxford Community Arts Center, a different sort of group played to a different sort of crowd. Rehugnant Jazz Quartet performed as part of the center's Second Friday event, a celebration of local art that occurs on the second Friday of every month.
The four middle-aged men who compose the band played without frills; they adhered to no dress code and sat on whatever was on hand -- a chair, stools, even one of their speakers. There was no brass in this group. Ralph Jones played guitar, Ian Borg was on drums, Kerry Jordan strummed bass and David Palmer manned the keyboard.
The atmosphere was intimate and informal. Rehugnant launched into their warm up tunes without ceremony, playing a full song before the show even officially began. They asked the gradually growing audience for help with their sound check.
"Turn up the guitar," an audience member suggested, and Jones obliged as the quartet began their set in earnest.
Before long, most of the fifty-some seats were filled. People listened intently, nodding their heads and tapping their feet in time. The sun set outside the tall windows as Rehugnant made the wooden floorboards hum.
The quartet has only been together for about a year and a half, with some of the members changing, but the ease with which they played reflected decades of experience on each member's part. There was no conductor and -- despite Palmer's title as band leader -- no single person dominated the songs.
The members took their cues from each other through glances and slight head nods. It was often difficult to tell how much of each song they were reading off the sheet music in front of them and how much was improvisation.
Despite the limitations of only four instruments, the group proved versatile in their style. They played original compositions alongside transformative covers by groups such as Earth, Wind and Fire and The Beatles. For a couple songs, Jones even provided singing accompaniment.
"The easiest table for our music is jazz fusion," Palmer said. "More than one person has commented on how diverse our music is -- from old jazz standards to newer jam band music to new standards created by covering and arranging old rock and funk songs."
More than once, the audience began to applaud before the song was even finished, each final flourish followed by exclamations of "Wow!" and "Oh, lovely!"
The attention of a rapt audience made it a special night for Rehugnant.
"[The show] was a rich one for us," Palmer said. "We know what it's like to travel an hour or more, play our guts out and to end the night playing to the bartender, the sound person and the door person, and to go home with $10 in our pockets...Oxford is a great town, full of deep thinkers, people who are passionate about examining and exploring life in all of its richness and tragedy."
Palmer would love to see more of the jazz/jam-band scene in Oxford, and encourages anyone interested in such a scene to get in touch with him at email@example.com.