Over the weekend, the Toll Gate High School Jazz Ensemble placed fourth at Berklee College of Music’s 46th High School Jazz Festival, improving from an 11th place finish last year.
During last Saturday’s event at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, the Jazz Ensemble competed with 16 schools in their category, earning an “Honorable Mention” award.
Only the top four finishing teams receive plaques in this competition, which is the largest high school jazz competition in the country.
“When we chose the festival music, the tunes were difficult but we knew with hard work and dedication we could play them,” said George Landrie, Toll Gate band and jazz ensemble director.
He said that the music was selected back in July, and the group worked tirelessly to prepare. In December, the group worked with a jazz clinician, Ted Collins, who has also worked with West Warwick High School’s Jazz Ensemble.
In addition to the Ensemble’s Tuesday and Thursday evening rehearsals, the group also added 6:30 a.m. practices before school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“Almost all of the mornings were brutally cold, but these students are goal-oriented,” said Landrie.
Last Saturday’s festival featured 200 bands and vocal ensembles with nearly 3,000 students from 13 states competing for $175,000 in scholarships to Berklee’s five-week Summer Performance Program.
The Toll Gate ensemble competed in the Large Ensemble Class 3 category for high schools with enrollment between 680 and 900 students not including seniors. Other ensembles in the same category from Rhode Island included Barrington High School, which placed second, Bishop Hendricken High School, which placed fifth, Portsmouth High School, which placed sixth, and Wakefield High School, which placed 10th.
For their performance, the Jazz Ensemble started with “Nice and Easy Blues,” featuring solos from pianist Szabolcs Kiss, alto saxophonist David Stachurski, alto saxophonist Finn Casey, bassist Evan Carley, and drummer Isaac Davis. This song was suggested by Collins during his time with the ensemble in December.
“He and I felt it was a tune that could feature all of our best players. That decision turned out to be the correct decision,” said Landrie.
In the judges’ comments, all recognized the excellence of the rhythm section during this piece, made up of Kiss, Carley and Davis.
Judge Don Gorder wrote that the “rhythm section sets a solid groove in the pocket.”
“Szabi [Kiss] plays with a strong groove and energy … Evan has a good time and intonation,” wrote judge Robert Christephson.
“Rhythm section clicks together on the groove,” wrote Lucy Holstedt, the final judge.
The Ensemble’s other two songs were “My Funny Valentine” featuring Toll Gate singer Shanelle Lawson, and “Una Mas” featuring solos from tenor saxophonist Eric Mechanic, Kiss, Carley and Davis.
“The judges’ comments were really less critical and more complementary this year, and we will just enjoy that for now before we go back to work,” said Landrie.
In addition to the high school performances, the event included performances by Berklee students and the Berklee Rainbow Band performed the winning piece from Berklee’s Herb Pomeroy Jazz Composition/Arranging Contest.
Toll Gate senior Szabolcs Kiss, who plays piano for the Ensemble, was also recognized during the awards ceremony for his second place finish in the Composition/Arranging Contest. He was awarded a $2,000 scholarship for Berklee’s summer program.
“You can tell Szabi loves music because every time he plays, he smiles. I think he takes so many musical risks, and I think he often wonders if I hear those risks. I tend to give him a look, nod or a wink when he does his magic,” said Landrie.
Senior Evan Carley, bassist for the group, was also recognized at the festival, winning best player award for Toll Gate’s ensemble for the second year in a row.
“I had the pleasure these past three years of watching the extreme musical growth from senior bassist Evan Carley,” said Landrie. “He could play in any nightclub now, but his only limitation is that he is too young.”
Also, students in both Toll Gate’s Jazz Ensemble and Concert Band had success during auditions for Rhode Island All-State; the results were announced in January. Landrie explained that all of his students who auditioned for Rhode Island All-State 2014 placed in the top 10 in the state in their respective instruments. The following students placed high enough to earn a spot in the 2014 orchestras:
Lexie Wasserman, freshman, earned principal violinist in the Rhode Island Junior All-State Orchestra. Emily Langevin also earned a spot in the Junior Orchestra as a violinist.
Carley placed number one in the state on jazz bass, earning him a spot in the Rhode Island Senior Division All-State Jazz Ensemble, as well as earning the number two spot for bass in the Rhode Island Senior All-State Orchestra.
Senior Muireann Lemus and junior DongEun Seung will join Carley in the Rhode Island Senior Division All-State Orchestra; both play the viola.
Sophomore Nathan Cornell earned a place as a trumpet player in the Rhode Island Senior Division All-State Concert Band.
Finally, drummer Isaac Davis was also named to the Rhode Island Senior Division All-State Jazz Ensemble.
Landrie acknowledges the fact that he has been very lucky to have such talented music students, many of whom will be graduating this June.
“It is like watching a championship sports team, only it happens with music,” said Landrie, calling seniors Kiss, Davis and Carley the creative captains. “I liken those three to when the Boston Bruins had Orr, Park and Bourque as creative defensemen.”
The Jazz Ensemble, as well as Toll Gate’s Orchestra, Concert Band, String Quartet and Jazz Combo, will take part in the Great East Music Festival in Agawam, Mass. on May 16.
“They rank our performances like the Olympics – gold, silver, bronze – but we would like to strive for a score of 95 or better and get that rarely awarded platinum performance,” explained Landrie.