For many years, one of the highlights of each season at the Jazz Showcase has been the residency of the DePaul Jazz Ensemble with a star soloist under the direction of Bob Lark.
On Thursday evening, the Jazz Showcase extended the practice by featuring an up-and-coming organization, the Columbia College Jazz Ensemble with veteran pianist Barry Harris. As with the DePaul University students, the sight and sound of so many young musicians taking on the challenges of the jazz repertoire had to inspire anyone who hopes for a long future for this music.
The engagement was as significant for Columbia College Chicago as it was for the Jazz Showcase, because this marked the first time the student ensemble had launched a four-night residency in the city's most prominent jazz room. Judging by this performance, there should be many such engagements to come. For even if certain aspects of the band's sets on Thursday evening showed room for growth, the dedication of the students and their eagerness to play was unmistakable.
They certainly have benefited from the direction of Scott Hall, the Columbia faculty member who has taught these students a great deal about ensemble precision, adherence to tempo and felicity to the published score. These young musicians played with self-assurance and verve, characteristics that only come with rigorous rehearsal and instruction.
With Harris seated at the piano for many selections, the band took on a stylistically wide range of scores by him and others. In Harris' “Minor Situation,” there was no resisting the rhythmic snap of the ensemble playing, the students clearly well-drilled in its rhythmic twists and turns.
And though it's a fair bet that most of these young musicians never have been to Havana, they dispatched Ray Bryant's “Cubano Chant” with a persuasive Afro-Cuban feel, no easy task.
Perhaps the youth of these particular musicians helps explain the somewhat under-ripe quality of their ensemble sound. For all their technical assurance and palpable love of the music, the band needs a richer, more complex and nuanced corporate sonority. There was an opaque quality to the passages featuring all the players that became tiresome.
Then, again, that kind of instrumental prowess can develop over time, and there's every reason to hope these musicians will achieve it. Certainly the accomplished piano solos of student Bill Cessna were inspiring.
Joining the ensemble on the bill was 3CVJE, the school's student vocal ensemble, which sang beautifully in “Embraceable You” but struggled with the formidable “Twisted.”
As for pianist Harris, he played the role of impromptu professor, producing elegant solos but mostly striving to support the students and yield the spotlight to them.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday; 4 and 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Tickets: $20; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com