Austin Powers Jazz Ensembles
Catalina Bar & Grill date is part of a whirlwind week of performances
After being reminded that the Gibson/Baldwin GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles had only met and started rehearsing two-and-a-half days prior, R&B diva Patti Austin said dryly, "I can't make up my mind in two-and-a-half days. People keep asking me, 'What has it been like to work with these kids all week? What are you teaching them?' And I say, 'I'm the one who's learning.'"
Under the bright lights of the Catalina Bar & Grill stage, a newly svelte Austin then went on to praise the Jazz Ensembles — comprised of 30 of the most talented high school musicians from across North America — for immersing themselves in jazz, even if they occasionally indulged in hip-hop when amongst their friends. In a throaty, street-wise growl, she thanked them for fighting "for the right to play jazz."
She then led the combo and the choral group into a soulful, earthy version of "Baby, Come To Me," her 1982 chart-topper with James Ingram.
Austin was the special guest at the Jazz Ensembles' performance on Wednesday night, one of a string of engagements that the gifted collective has scheduled in and around the Los Angeles area.
One of several artists who mentor students during their GRAMMY Week experience, Austin joined the Jazz Ensembles big band for a shimmery rendition of "I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise," a track on her upcoming album, Avant Gershwin, in which she revitalizes Gershwin gems with the help of the renowned WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany.
The Gibson/Baldwin Jazz Ensembles is comprised of a jazz combo, a big band and a choir. The bands spend the week under the instruction of Justin DiCioccio, chair of the jazz department at the Manhattan School of Music. The vocalists are skillfully guided by Dr. Ron McCurdy, chair of jazz studies at USC’s Thornton School of Music, and Dr. Leila Heil, an assistant professor of music at Ohio State University.
Throughout the evening, the Jazz Ensembles fearlessly tackled classics including the timeless "April In Paris" and Miles Davis' "Seven Steps To Heaven." Before the full band dove into John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" without even breaking a sweat, an ebullient DiCioccio said he had encouraged them to approach the challenging composition with some simple words of advice: "Mow 'em down, baby! That's jazz!"
The choir showcased their diversity by seamlessly embracing Clifford Brown's "Daahoud" before offering up a wild take on Stevie Wonder's "Don’t You Worry 'Bout A Thing," replete with vocal scats, swoops and beats.
The evening’s finale, Michael and Randy Brecker's "Some Skunk Funk," brought the audience to its feet.
Standout solos by saxophonist Eli Bennett, from Heritage Christian Online School in Vancouver, B.C., and pianists Yuma Sung from Valley Christian High School in Los Altos, Calif., and Christian Sands from Amity Regional Senior High School in Orange, Conn., elicited enthusiastic whoops from the room. The big band included trombonist Joanna Sabater, a student at the New World School of the Arts in Miami, and saxophonist Hailey Niswanger from West Linn High School in West Linn, Ore., the only female members of the band, who ably held their own amongst their male counterparts.
The polite and slightly built Sands, a second-year member of the Jazz Ensembles, gave a memorable performance with Oscar Peterson at last year's GRAMMY Salute To Jazz tribute. He got word earlier this week that he would be performing a classical piece with Anne Lee from the Young Musicians Foundation on Sunday's GRAMMY telecast. After the Catalina performance, Sands said he wasn't nervous at the prospect of playing in front of a live audience of thousands and a telecast audience of millions. "I incorporate the audience into my music," he said calmly, adding that he'd been trained as a classical musician since he "was a youngster."
To say that the students are in the midst of a whirlwind visit to Los Angeles might be an understatement. The Ensembles appeared at the GRAMMY Salute To Jazz event on Tuesday at the Music Box @ Fonda theater (as accompaniment to sax luminaries James Moody and Phil Woods), and will perform at the GRAMMY Foundation’s Music Preservation event today at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. Friday will find them backing Tony Bennett at his appearance at Borders Books & Music in Westwood in the afternoon, and playing The Vic theater later that evening. After watching the 49th GRAMMY Awards telecast as guests of The Recording Academy, in their final performance of the week the Jazz Ensembles will entertain revelers at the official telecast post-party.
In between all their performances, they will also take time out to record a CD at the famed Capitol Recording Studios in the heart of Hollywood. Their CD will be recorded and mixed by Jimmy Hoyson and GRAMMY-winning producer and engineer Al Schmitt.
The Gibson/Baldwin Jazz Ensembles is one of several educational programs created by the GRAMMY Foundation. The annual GRAMMY Week experience affords young adults the opportunity to interact with seasoned music industry veterans and professional artists, and have their eyes opened to career opportunities and challenges. The Jazz Ensembles members are also eligible for more than $2 million in scholarships through colleges and universities that partner with the GRAMMY Foundation.