CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Just listen. That’s the first thing anyone should do with the new CD “Freeplay,” released this month by the University of Illinois’ Concert Jazz Band.
The 9-year-old jazz program has lured well-known musicians to join the faculty (all full-time, no adjunct), and those professors have attracted talented students, such as Matt Hughes, the jazz divisions' bass teaching assistant. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer | Listen to
"if I Only Had Seven Giant Brains"
The opening track – “If I Only Had Seven Giant Brains” (a mash-up of the jazz standards “Giant Steps” and “Seven Steps to Heaven” with Scarecrow’s theme from “The Wizard of Oz”) – offers immediate proof that these students are professional-caliber artists. Once the listener has acclimated to the nimble musicianship displayed throughout the rest of the double-disc set, then it might be time to tell the truth about this album: That 11 of the tracks are original compositions, written by UI jazz performance students, and all 17 tunes on the CD were arranged by the students in the band.
Chip McNeill, chair of the jazz studies program, says the student “charts” (or scores) set this project apart from the band’s previous CDs, and from CDs produced by other college jazz programs.
“We needed to get to this point, where we had something to offer where it’s all done by the students in every way,” McNeill said. “That happens in other places too, but we’ve done it in a very, very short span of time.”
UI didn’t offer a jazz performance degree until nine years ago, when Karl Kramer, then-newly appointed director of the School of Music, offered McNeill a teaching position. McNeill told Kramer he would accept the job only if he would be allowed to “build something worthwhile” – curricula for bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in jazz.
Since then, the program has lured well-known musicians to join the faculty (all full-time, no adjunct), and those professors have attracted talented students. The jazz program now includes 18 performing ensembles, including four big bands, seated based on auditions. The Concert Band is considered the top group.
Grad students comprised the majority of the band that recorded “Freeplay,” in April 2010, but trombonist Scott Ninmer – a junior at the time of the recording – composed five of the tunes (including the title track) and arranged two others, including “If I Only Had Seven Giant Brains.”
Another then-junior, alto-saxophonist Brian Krock, has two original compositions on the CD. (The album also includes a few standards, like “Your Red Wagon,” and “Polkadots and Moonbeams.”)
McNeill said UI’s jazz curriculum requires more writing, orchestrating and performance classes than some other schools’ – two semesters of jazz composition, four semesters of jazz arranging, eight semesters of applied jazz – “and that’s just for undergrads,” he said. “The degrees we offer are jazz performance, but being a good and conversant writer in many idioms and styles means being a good performer in many idioms and styles. They go hand-in-hand. They always have.”
Recording the CD provided more learning experiences for the students. Working with a small budget donated by a private party, the band booked an Indianapolis jingle studio called The Lodge, and recorded all 17 tracks in two days, with only one or two takes per track. “They (the students) got to see what goes on in a studio in terms of a timeline, with a limited amount of time, a limited amount of money. You’ve got to turn out the best performance you can possibly turn out – right now. You’ve got to stand and deliver,” McNeill said. “We did ‘em bang bang bang, like professionals.”
The lessons continued during the “mixing” of the tape, which was also done by students, under McNeill’s supervision, over the course of three days.
The “Free Play” CD puts the UI jazz program right where McNeill hoped it would be when he came to the school in fall 2002. A veteran saxophonist and music director, who has toured the world with Arturo Sandoval, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson and others, McNeill recruited a staff of similarly experienced musicians to teach and nurture UI students.
“We’ve hired some tremendous people, and they’ve all done a wonderful job and helped build the program even further,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been able to go as far as we have, as fast as we have, because everybody’s committed.”
The CD is available for purchase at all UI jazz ensemble performances, and through McNeill, at email@example.com. Cost is $20.