A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Nov 25, 2013
04:40 PM
Classically Speaking

Throw Out the Thermometer—It Was a Hot Night in Sun Prairie


Bassist Rodney Whitaker was a welcome addition to "A Night of Jazz."

What’s better than enjoying a performance that crackles with the living, breathing traditions of jazz? The answer is seeing a concert where one is also keenly aware of the fruits of great performers who are also dedicated educators.

That was the sum total of “A Night of Jazz,” co-sponsored by the Madison Jazz Society and the Sun Prairie Band Boosters. Sunday night at Sun Prairie High School, the SPHS Jazz I ensemble was a short but persuasive warm-up act for the Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble. The event was something of a tradition itself, as Sun Prairie’s director, Steve Sveum, has been a friend of the soon-to-retire NIU director, Ronald Carter, for twenty-five years or so. Both ensembles gave ample testimony to the decades of passionate teaching that both men have poured out.

The SPHS band opened with two numbers of Benny Carter’s "Kansas City Suite," "Wiggle Walk" and "Sunset Glow." Last heard by yours truly in May, just before their latest trip to the Essentially Ellington” competition at Lincoln Center, this year’s group quickly displayed tight ensemble and sizzling brass.

Carter and NIU are headliners enough, but they also brought bassist Rodney Whitaker, based at Michigan State University and renowned for his one hundred-plus recordings and work with acclaimed musican and composer Wynton Marsalis, who currently serves as artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Whitaker joined with two bass players (Sam Olson and Gweni Smith) from SPHS as Sveum led "Tricotism." The kids kept up very well.

Carter hails from Georgia, and appropriately opened with a rip-roaring “Sweet Georgia Brown,” way faster than the Harlem Globetrotters could have used for their shoot-arounds. A major highlight of their first set was “Spring Can Hang You Up the Most,” which opens and closes as a ballad, while switching gears for a wild ride middle section. Trombonist Jaron McCarr was a consummate soloist throughout the number.

There is no lack of precision and power in the brass and the NIU band, but their rhythm section was a particular delight, with Marianne Kim a pianist that draws one’s attention even when she wasn’t soloing. Guitarist Tetsuya Nashiyama and drummer Kelton Norris were equally riveting.

The second half set was devoted to showcasing Whitaker, and we shouldn’t have been surprised when Monk’s "Round Midnight" featured some bass played with a bow—Whitaker had referred to himself once as a “bass violinist.” The technique was wonderfully applied as well in Whitaker’s own “Summer (The Sweet Goodbye).” This is where he also showcased his unique compositional style, with the sax section of the NIU band morphing into three flutes, a clarinet and soprano sax, before reverting to saxes later in the chart.

Throughout the evening it was easy to see Carter’s artistic charisma, roving the stage from side to side, almost (but never really) distracting from his soloists with his lively movements and facial expressions. In the end it was all about life, writ and lived large, and when all was said and played, the substantial audience knew what a special group of performers—and teachers—we had been treated to.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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