CAMBRIDGE — When you think “jazz college,” MIT probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But this year, MIT is celebrating 50 years with jazz on the curriculum, going back to the hiring of Herb Pomeroy in 1963. Saturday night, current MIT jazz-faculty member Mark Harvey led his Aardvark Jazz Orchestra in a program at Kresge Auditorium that celebrated the MIT benchmark as well as the 40th anniversary of his band, and, coincidentally, Jazz Appreciation Month.
It was also, of course, the end of a very emotional week for the city, and Harvey dedicated the concert to the memory of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings as well as MIT police Officer Sean Collier. He introduced the show saying he hoped it would “reaffirm the power of music and of life.”
That it did. The concert, entitled “Echoes & Resonance,” was meant to make reference to many of the noteworthy jazz performances that have taken place at MIT over the years. “JB’s Dreamtime,” for instance, was Harvey’s evocation of a 1986 performance in which the great pianist and composer Jaki Byard delivered a piece for the band at the last minute. It ended up being a lesson for Aardvark in collective improvisation. Its performance of “JB’s Dreamtime” began with Harvey introducing a theme on piano, and climaxing with a massed collective improv that was both thick with detail but also transparent.
Over the course of the group’s career, pieces like that have made one think of Aardvark as an avant-garde big band. At Kresge, though, the prevailing spirit was Ellington. It was there in the thematic structure of Harvey’s “Boston JazzScape” suite (including it’s “tone parallel” to Boston’s old West End), and in Harvey’s impressionistic voicings for reeds, flutes, and brass, in the mix of jazz and church in the cultured singing of Jerry Edwards and Grace Hughes, and in the individual personalities of players like trombonist and tubist Bill Lowe and saxophonists Arni Cheatham and Dan Zupan (whose baritone rocked the house). And, of course, in the band’s swing. Mercer Ellington’s “Moon Mist” — the only non-Harvey piece on the bill — was especially fitting. The Duke’s son was a visiting artist at MIT (a school he said he’d always wanted to attend), and “Moon Mist,” with its three B-flat clarinets and one bass clarinet, was a quiet beauty.
The program also included a collectively improvised piece from a student ensemble — full of light and lyricism, modest but also substantial. Another sign of jazz’s health at MIT.