CNY Jazz Orchestra Finds the Happy Medium

The CNY Jazz Orchestra with special guests Joe Riposo and Steve Brown delivered a Friday night performance that lived up to its title: "Legends of Upstate New York, Part I."


Jazz can be a tricky genre to understand and appreciate. However, the Friday, October 30 performance of the CNY Jazz Orchestra with guests Joe Riposo and Steve Brown made the art form accessible, enjoyable and even danceable.

            Though there was no dance floor for audience members to swarm, the physical appeal of the music was visible as conductor, Bret Zvacek and various soloists, including Joe Riposo would swing to the music as they created it. Their energy, complimented their precision, proving that jazz can be an intellectual art form with the same appeal as swing or pop without sacrificing musicality. The artists were careful in their attacks, releases, tone and dynamics, but also charming, entertaining and undoubtedly talented.

The CNY Jazz Orchestra was composed of five saxophone players, four trombones, four trumpets, a pianist, bassist and percussionist. The horns were lined up by instrument and stacked, stadium style on the right side of the stage, with the drum set in the middle, the bassist behind the set and the piano to the left.

            The set-up was conducive to the style because it allowed each instrumentalist to be seen clearly. While in an orchestral setting, faces can be lost among the seating arrangement, in jazz; it’s essential to see the soloist. The animation of the improvisation is what brings the music to life. In the CNY Jazz ensemble, it also gave each soloist personality.

            The most entertaining was alto sax player Joe Carello. He would sway and shake with his solos adding an engaging visual element to his skillful aural technique. Also enjoyable, was conductor Bret Zvacek and drummer Larry Luttinger. Zvacek broke out his trombone for a solo while in the midst of a piece he was conducting and drummer Larry Luttinger always seemed to be relaxed, smiling and laughing though the material he was playing was extremely difficult. He was a consistent player, but still interesting, never becoming too predictable behind the set.

            However, the highlights of the show were the guests, Riposo and Brown.

            The concert was the first of the CNY Jazz Foundation’s 14th season and was titled “Legends of Upstate New York, Part I” (the next installment will be in April 2010). The series is paying tribute to the local talent that makes the CNY jazz scene so relevant in the art form.

            Riposo is the director of jazz studies at Syracuse University and has also worked as a clinician, adjudicator, guest conductor, soloist, composer and author. He has performed in backing bands for Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and others and his performance on Friday left no question as to why he was so qualified.

            He shuffled onto the stage during the first half of the show and was instantly charming, gracious and humble. He gave the orchestra due thanks and spoke conversationally between pieces, manifesting a feeling of comfort and understanding between the stage and the audience.

            His sound was perfect from the very first note. The tone of his saxophone was pure and clear and his attacks and articulation were spotlessly clean. He was most impressive on the romantic “Body and Soul,” which he sweetly dedicated to his wife. Prefacing the number, he jokingly explained that when his wife “requested” that he play the song, it was really more of a threat, demanding he play it or he’d be “locked out of the house.” After sharing in the laughter of the audience he again dedicated the song sincerely to his wife.

            Following the intermission, Luttinger, the founder and director of the CNY Jazz Foundation and organizer of the event made the audience laugh, but also seriously consider the situation of the arts in the current economic state. He pleaded the audience to help through their support, but offset the desperation with humor saying that politics in Albany need a kind of “political ex-lax.” His technique was refreshing and entertaining. Most directors plead, talk about a raffle and quickly dismiss themselves, saying, “Enjoy the show,” while they’re thinking, “donate when you leave.” Luttinger was actually fun to listen to: both speaking and playing.

            After he stepped aside, the orchestra played a piece that was a combination of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Bret Zvacek who fashioned an arrangement of “All My Lovin’.” The well-known melodic theme surfaced periodically throughout the number, and worked well within the new creation.

            And then, Steve Brown took the stage.

            I had been scribbling notes in my program throughout the night and at the very first sound of Brown’s blues guitar I actually wrote, “I need to fall in love with a jazz/blues guitarist. Most beautiful thing I have ever heard.”

            I think that sums it up.

            His sound, like Riposo’s was pure, clear and clean, but because of the gentle harmonics of the guitar, took on a more ethereal and awe-striking timbre. He was also soft-spoken, brief and precise in his interludes.

            Brown is well-known for his work as a composer, guitarist and arranger and recently retired from Ithaca College where we was the director of the jazz studies program and a professor of music. Like Riposo, he has also performed with an impressive catalog of artists including Chuck Mangione, Billy Hart, Jimmy Smith and others.

            I left the performance feeling entertained, but challenged by level of difficulty of the music. It was intricate, yet organic and the performers were lively, but professional. It was a pleasing combination of musical precision with free-flowing artistic interpretation and emotion. It left me feeling more satisfied than most other musical performances because of its stratification of appeals. While orchestral performances can be overwhelming with the exactitude of the music and pop bands are often too superficial to communicate anything convincing, jazz can find the medium between.

             The CNY Jazz Orchestra, Joe Riposo and Steve Brown did.


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