By Laurel Fishman
"We're under pressure, but we're under control!" announced 15-year-old bassoonist Steven Salazar, one of the members of this year's GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles carrying a gig bag into the Doubletree Guest Suites in Santa Monica, Calif., to perform at the first GRAMMY In The Schools Live!
Special guest artists — pianist/trombonist Brian Culbertson, saxophonist/vocalist Mindi Abair and GRAMMY-nominated saxophonist/keyboardist Boney James — confided to me before the show that they were more than pleasantly surprised at just how professional these young musicians had been during rehearsal.
Boney said they had learned his song "The Total Experience" from a lead sheet and his album before ever meeting him, and that they played with passion and precision. Boney also admitted, "I sure didn't play this good when I was that young!"
GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles co-director Dr. Ron McCurdy said that most high school musicians rehearse for five to six weeks to give a one-time performance. But the Ensembles had only two days of rehearsal to deliver excellence multiple times during GRAMMY Week.
Once GRAMMY In The Schools Live! began, any skepticism over what the young musicians were capable of vanished, with them earning several standing ovations. On "A Mis Abuelos," the Ensembles proved it could easily swing from traditional Latin interpretation to avant-garde expression. GRAMMY Jazz Choir members showed themselves to be impeccable song stylists, with tight, tasteful harmonies, especially when singing a cappella on Take 6's "So Cool." The GRAMMY Jazz Combo gave pristine performances, and every solo throughout the evening had each player's individual stamp on it.
Mindi talked about the Ensembles' members musically finding themselves in their own way, and it was evident when they joined her for a rendition of Mindi's fun and funky "The Joint" and traded licks on her playful "Lucy's El Adobe."
The Ensembles took it from bold and brassy to mellow and moody with Boney's music. Post-show, he thought about what it would have been like as a teenager to have been onstage with a David Sanborn. "I would have been walking on a cloud," Boney said. "But after being up there playing with those kids tonight, I'm walking on a cloud right now!"
Brian said he was elated after the Ensembles' energetic performance with him on his song "Funkin' Like My Father." Everyone shared his enthusiasm as the musicians kept playing their instruments while parading around the hotel ballroom among the audience, New Orleans-style. "Holy cow," said Brian, capturing the feeling. "This is fantastic!"
And with the night winding to a joyful close, the excitement continued in anticipation of more GRAMMY Week performances and a recording session at Capitol Studios, to be mixed by 17-time GRAMMY winner Al Schmitt, mastered by two-time GRAMMY winner Bernie Grundman, and produced by the GRAMMY Foundation's Senior Director of Education David Sears. "It's a real CD, on iTunes and other online retailers," David said. "It's not just for the kids."
That's for sure. It's for everyone who would like to hear today the pro players of tomorrow, because that's exactly who they are.
(To view photos from GRAMMY In The Schools Live! and other GRAMMY Week events, click here.)