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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: UWGB Jazz Fest 51 thrives on a Green Bay-bred vibe

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Music

“A Different UWGB Jazz Fest, No. 51” screenshot image with Brass Differential of Green Bay in Cofrin Family Hall of the Weidner Center, March 27, 2021. (Warren Gerds)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Review from Jan. 25, 1971: “The First Annual UW-GB Jazz Festival was great. It was no wobbly-legged baby. Now what can we expect from the second, the third, the 10th?” – Warren Gerds/Green Bay Press-Gazette

Indeed, what of the 51st?

UWGB Jazz Fest 51 was held Saturday night in Cofrin Family Hall of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Live, in-person attendance was restricted to the musicians and technicians for the event.

“This is very weird, playing to no one,” said Bill Hill, trombonist/frontman for Brass Differential, the band for the night. “But it’s a thrill to be here.” Later, he said, “The space is absolutely stunning.”

The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused an empty house in the region’s showcase performance hall, but on the other hand:

+ It was the first time a Jazz Fest concert was beamed live to an audience at home, wherever home may be.

+ The concert still can be seen online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqxmH630Hek. There’s a lot of mustard to it.

+ For the musicians, this was the first concert gig in a year. A year!

Adam Gaines, Jazz Fest director and music faculty member, said the evening was a celebration of a kind for the university. Most of the players in the nine-member Brass Differential are products of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The band is based in Green Bay.

+ The review of the first Jazz Fest said, “(That concert) breathed life into a music form that in the Green Bay area is in asthmatic stages, except for interest generated by the colleges.” Brass Differential unleashes serious playing – complex, intricate, as full of fire as it is intricate… and with infectious drive. If any breath is taken away, it would not be from asthma but the band’s relentless energy level.

The members of Brass Differential: Sasha Mikkleson, vocals; Ken Barhite, saxophones; Bill Hill, trombone and vocals; Kelly Galarneau, sousaphone; Michael Sewell, bari sax; Matt Hillman, guitar; Adam Gaines, trumpet; Patrick Phalen, trumpet; and Steve Seitz, drums.

In online performances in the past year, the name Rob and Cathy Riordan Family Foundation has surfaced. I equate the name with good sound, and that was the case with Jazz Fest 51 over my computer. Among the interesting effects, the brass players at times sang into the microphones attached to the bells of their instruments for group-singing fun.

The soundscape included numbers from the group repertoire. Included in the hour and 50 minutes of playing were “Bit by Bit,” “A Million Ways,” “Bap Bap,” “Killing Me Softly,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Blue Monk,” “Brooklyn,” “Do What You Wanna,” “Funkin’ It Up,” “Hurricane Season,” “I Will Survive” and “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now.”

Most of the pieces dusted the hall’s rafters. Especially interesting to me was Sasha Mikkleson, vocalist/show-calist for her way of selling a song in nimble, flexible jazz/blues sound and absorbing presence.

Two tunes were special.

One was the group original, “Washington Street Parade,” with the rousing, full, everybody-in vibe created by sousaphone player Kelly Galarneau.

The other was a tip of the hat to Lovell Ives, founder of UWGB Jazz fest. “What an absolute treasure Lovell Ives is,” Adam Gaines said of the mentor to many and in a way the foundation for the Brass Differential oeuvre. The band played “Too Old to Dream,” a Linda Ronstadt song Lovell Ives adapted for the group. Some of the lyrics: “When I’m too old to dream, your love will live on in my heart.”

***

Side story: By coincidence, I interviewed Lovell Ives on the same day as Lyle Mays, a Grammy Award-winning student of his. I had interviewed Lovell Ives as a creative person. I was interviewing Lyle Mays, not on his illustrious career as Pat Metheny Group keyboardist/composer, but on creating the architectural design (!?! Yes!) for the local home of one of his sisters. I showed Lyle Mays a photo in my digital camera of Lovell Ives from just a few hours before. Lyle Mays melted in a wave of emotion, put a hand to his heart and said Lovell Ives encouraged him to follow is musical muse. Lyle Mays died Feb. 10, 2020.

***

The first UWGB Jazz Fest was presented in Green Bay West High School Auditorium, which was the community’s performing arts hall at the time. The place was nearly filled – capacity 1,500 – for the concert.

Featured guest artists were trombonist Urbie Green and drummer Joe Morello (of the Dave Brubeck Quartet). Joe Morello received a standing ovation that he called one of the “greatest tributes of my career.”

One of the UWGB students featured along the way was John Salerno, who has played in and/or ran a lot of Jazz Fests and continues on the faculty of UWGB Music.

During the UWGB Jazz Ensemble portion, “it seemed like it was Peter Polzak Night,” I wrote. Peter Polzak continues today as a prominent jazz pianist in Chicago. Among his selections in Jazz Fest I, Peter Polzak played “Spartacus Love Theme,” which he arranged with the assistance of Lovell Ives.

***

Jazz Fest 51 has a legacy of its own. UWGB Music made sure a concert happened.

Now the heat is on for #52.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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