If you have the chance to attend a concert at UCI’s Winifred Smith Hall, I highly recommend doing so!
There are 205 seats, banked steeply in three tiers that crowd the stage so that the audience feels as if the entire orchestra is right there at our ankles. My wife and I had the pleasure of experiencing it firsthand when we attended a jazz orchestra concert at the venue recently.
Grammy nominee Bobby Rodriquez — an amazing trumpeter in his own right — served as conductor. The concert is more than just music. It’s also educational. Bobby conveys a real depth of knowledge about jazz, its history, the players, and the enthusiasm that comes along when it is well done.
The concert we attended was just that — jazz well done! Bobby’s been working with this orchestra for six years — 16 brass instrumentalists, piano, xylophone, with alternative drummers and base trading on & off between each set. Bobby told me after the concert that he’s been with these musicians long enough to have built a trust between them.
Throughout the concert, you can observe the mutual trust. Just off stage left, Bobby’s the cool, unseen maestro, beaming confidence into every player. When he needs to be, he is at the elbow, or in front of a group of musicians, guiding a soloist to the mic. If you look closely, you can catch him in the corner of the players’ eyes.
Bobby tells the audience that jazz is built on what came before. There’s no better way to start a jazz concert than with “Straight Ahead” by none other than the incomparable Count Basie. The band immediately comes alive and you start to hear and feel Bobby’s words about jazz as you listen to the music.
Next up was a very smooth version of Benny Carter’s “The Legend.” The set was highlighted by Andy Francis who delivered a flawless sax solo. During the intro, Bobby explained that talent comes from two things: dedication and education. Each musician seemed to bring both.
The third set came from Bobby, “Three Frijoles.” It’s an early work that he has revised and perfected over the years. With that terrific Latin beat, it comes across fresh and smooth.
The piano solo that followed, “Message from the Captain,” moved us into something with a slower beat. A tribute to Count Basie, composed by Scott Withfield.
Impeccably dressed and towering in stature, Matthew Nelson stepped forward to deliver one of the outstanding sax solos of the evening. However, Matthew was not without competition. Julio Hernandez — who Bobby has mentored on the soprano sax since age 7 — doesn’t tower in stature. Instead, it’s his musical ability that soars. During his performance, Julio’s fingers flew up and down the keys and seemed to hold the entire audience in thrall.
“That’s All Right” by John Fedchock allowed trumpet player Julian Freedberg to display his skills. The set included a standout duo performance, where trumpet and sax were able to hand the lead back-and-forth, which showed impeccable timing. Not all bands can deliver that kind of musicality.
“Party Time” was another crowd-pleaser written by Bobby. This set provided a platform for Gabe Mallair on the electric bass guitar to run the show for a while. He pushed a lot of music through those four-strings.
The UCI signature closing piece was “Freedom Blues,” by who else — Dr. Bobby Rodriquez. I recall this set from my many years attending concerts, even back when Mr. Charles Owens was the director. It’s been a favorite set. Walking to the parking lot afterwards, I always find myself whistling the tune.
When leaving, a fellow audience member and I struck up a conversation. We both agreed that the concert made us feel good just being there.
If you missed this concert, don’t worry. There’s more to come at UCI. In fact, the jazz orchestra has scheduled a re-appearance on May 22nd. Admission is free. To learn more, click here.
I hope to see you in the audience!
For a list of other upcoming performances at UCI, click here.
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