In the world of higher education, it's not unusual to hear first-rate music being performed at places not known as music schools. Yes, there's Juilliard, the New England Conservatory, and Berklee. But there are also liberal arts institutions, like Harvard and BU, with formidable music departments. Still, it comes as something of a surprise that one of the most compelling CDs of the year is credited to "MIT Wind Ensemble & MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble." The latter group performs at the school's Kresge Auditorium on April 24; the Wind Ensemble will premiere a new piece by saxophonist Miguel Zenón there a week later.
The new album, "Infinite Winds," was released earlier this month on the Sunnyside label, and comes with some important jazz names attached: Don Byron, Chick Corea, and Guillermo Klein. But they appear as composers, not players. There are two ringers as featured soloists: the formidable tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, and the clarinetist, composer, and MIT faculty member Evan Ziporyn, formerly a longtime member of new-music collective Bang on a Can's resident group, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But the disc is laced with authoritative solos from MIT students, and buoyed by the solid performances by the two student ensembles, conducted by their director, Frederick Harris Jr.
Included on the CD are a recording of the first performance of Klein's "Solar Return Suite," and world-premiere recordings of Corea's "From Forever" and Byron's "Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble." All were commissioned with grants from the Council on the Arts at MIT. The MIT Wind Ensemble, created by Harris in 1999, has two previous recordings under its name: one on the classical label Albany Records (which previously released the Klein piece), and another on the American Composers Forum's label, Innova. And the MIT commissioning process has included pieces like pianist Kenny Werner's "No Beginning, No End," which Werner went on to record for the Half Note jazz label. But "Infinite Winds" is the first recording by either of the MIT ensembles on a commercial jazz label.
As for the pieces themselves, Klein's "Solar Return Suite" is dark, brooding, even violent; one movement concerns the persecuted medieval Catholic sect the Cathars. Byron's concerto reflects his broad tastes, and was inspired in part by the TV music of his childhood — multifaceted composers like Leonard Rosenman (writer of the theme for "Combat!") and Lalo Schifrin ("Mission: Impossible" and countless others). The through-composed three-movement piece displays Byron's antic humor, with a fiendishly tricky part written for Ziporyn.
Corea's "From Forever" is the most "jazz-like" of the three, with propulsive Afro-Latin grooves and swing rhythms. All three composers clearly relished the broad palette afforded by the two large ensembles — made evident in the opening bars of the Klein piece, where the band shifts from timorous low woodwinds to lush mid-range brass.
The history of jazz at MIT extends back decades, but it took a leap in 1963 when the school hired the trumpeter, composer, and arranger Herb Pomeroy to lead its jazz band. An established Boston player and educator already teaching at Berklee, Pomeroy established the legacy of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, so-named because it was created to play festivals. It was the first college ensemble to play the Montreux Jazz Festival, in 1970. (Pomeroy died in 2007, and both the Corea piece and the album are dedicated to him.)
Today, along with Harris, the music faculty includes Ziporyn, who leads the MIT Balinese-music ensemble Gamelan Galak Tika as well as directing the school's Center for Art, Science, and Technology. Composer, bandleader, and trumpeter Mark Harvey teaches jazz history, improvisation, composition, and arranging. Pulitzer Prize-winner John Harbison, a faculty member since 1969, directs the jazz vocal ensemble. And composer Tod Machover has been on the faculty at the school's Media Lab since its founding in 1985.
"Because they're not thinking about music as a career," Ziporyn says of his MIT students, "they're really open." That openness encouraged Klein to write a kind of sci-fi fantasy scenario, with experimental modes representing alternative solar systems. Zenón's upcoming piece, "Music as Service," is based on interviews he conducted with MIT students about their various science-based projects.
"They're like the nerdy kids in high school that were good in band but decided not to be musicians," says Byron, an NEC graduate. Klein, who went to Berklee, compares the experience of "transcribing Ben Webster solos and Jaco Pastorious solos" with that of MIT students, for whom music is a sideline to their own rigorous study of other esoteric subjects. "The task of becoming a professional musician is an amazing task, but it can take you away from other things."
There's also another advantage to working with the MIT student body. "Once you explain something to an MIT kid," says Byron, "you never have to do it again. If you can explain it well, you can get those kids to do just about anything."
The ninth annual Jazz Week (April 24-May 3), organized by the nonprofit JazzBoston, this year takes as its theme "Jazz in the Neighborhood," with special focus on the historical contribution of Roxbury and Mattapan. On April 25, there's a free walking tour of Lower Roxbury by Discover Roxbury, pointing out some of the many venues that made Boston a hot spot for jazz in years past. (The tour begins at 11 a.m. at the Ruggles MBTA stop, Tremont St. staircase.) Tomorrow night, the Makanda Project — dedicated to the music of the late Roxbury composer Makanda Ken McIntyre — plays a free gala dance party in the ballroom setting of Hibernian Hall at 8 p.m. The Museum of African American History and the Imagine Orchestra will present "Stories of Black Boston," with narration by WGBH's Eric Jackson at the museum, on Sunday at 4 p.m. On April 30 — declared "International Jazz Day" by UNESCO — the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble will invade the City Council chambers at 11 a.m. For a complete list of Jazz Week events, go to www.jazzboston.org.
MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble
Herb Pomeroy Memorial Concert
At: Kresge Auditorium, MIT, Friday at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $5. mta.mit.edu
MIT Wind Ensemble
At Kresge Auditorium, MIT,
May 1 at 8 p.m.
Tickets $5. mta.mit.edu