Jazz Festival Showcases Student Talent

Jazz was alive and kicking—and swinging—at the Rivers Jazz Festival this past Saturday. The annual event, a staple since 2007, brought jazz in its many and varied forms to Bradley Hall for a day-long series of concerts and workshops.
In the 13 years of its existence, explains Philippe Crettien, jazz department chair at The Rivers School Conservatory, the festival has evolved somewhat. In its current incarnation, the early part of the day featured various RSC ensembles; at 6:00, the evening program kicked off, with performances by Rivers School music groups, including the Middle School Big Band, the Rivers Big Band, the Select 1 and 2 Combos, and the Rivers Honors Big Band. The highlight of the festival is an Honors Big Band performance with and by a living jazz composer. This year’s featured composer was Felipe Salles, an associate professor of jazz at UMass Amherst and recipient of numerous honors, including a 2018 Guggenheim fellowship for composing.

Crettien, who is studying under Salles at UMass as part of a master’s degree program he expects to complete in May, says Salles is “world class. This was an incredible opportunity for our students to work with him.”

The process began last spring, when the two pieces of music that would be Salles’s focus were chosen, based on the band’s makeup and strengths: “After the Rain/Naima” and “Vera Cruz.” The students started learning the music then, but even with that head start, Crettien says it was challenging to learn the pieces in time for the November 2 performance. With their tricky rhythms and world-music references, the compositions were “outside our comfort zone,” says Crettien. But Salles worked with the band in a couple of master classes during the weeks leading up to the festival, and the performance came off without a hitch.

Salles was sufficiently impressed, says Crettien, to extend an invitation to the Honors Big Band to compete in UMass Amherst’s annual high school jazz festival next spring. “He said they sounded like a college-level band,” says Crettien, citing the students’ focus and engagement.

Crettien says the festival was a success by other measures as well. “There were a lot of new faces in the audience,” he says, among them distinguished jazz musician Ted Pease, now retired from the faculty of Berklee College of Music. “He was really impressed; he gave us the thumbs-up,” reports Crettien. The concert hall was filled to capacity, with standing-room-only at some points, and Crettien hopes the festival can build on that success in future years.

Most important, he adds, it’s a special performance opportunity for music students. “It’s incredible for the kids to be able to perform this difficult music and succeed,” he says. “It’s another notch in their confidence and validation of their work.”