Students attending the five-day UNC Summer Jazz Workshop in Chapel Hill were treated to—and required to attend—a concert in Moeser Auditorium on Monday night. An evening rainstorm had concertgoers sprinting for the hall, where they encountered a very different kind of thunder: the boom of percussion and the clash of piano keys, courtesy of the Marimjazzia Quintet.
The North Carolina-based jazz ensemble packed the moderately filled hall with a diapason of Latin-flavored jazz. Marimjazzia’s founder is Juan Álamo, a Puerto Rican-born composer and performer who teaches jazz at UNC. Álamo was joined on stage by pianist and fellow faculty member Stephen Anderson, as well as a trio of guest musicians: Beverly Botsford on congas, Peter Kimosh on drums, and Brevan Hampden on bass. All songs on the 90-minute program were arranged or composed by Álamo, who gave himself the starring role as the ensemble’s marimba player. All but one of the songs were arrangements of tunes by jazz legend Bobby Hutchinson, a hero of Álamo’s. “To me it’s really astounding to look at the original [Hutchinson] compositions,” said Anderson between songs. “Juan’s reconstructed these tunes, but beautifully crafted them in a way where the original is still there and yet in a new and totally different environment, to me is really impeccable writing.”
“I’d never heard marimba that way…and I’m a marimba player,” workshop attendee Justin Fligstein said after the show.
The young audience seemed to agree. There were frequent claps and cheers; people bobbed their heads, and a high school student sitting in one of the front rows could be seen playing air piano during a particularly gnarly solo by Anderson. The sound was not always balanced; the piano in particular was often drowned out during solos by the accompanying drum set and congas. The bass might have been forgotten almost entirely, had it not been for the Hampden’s infectious visual gestures and movements.
And yet together the ensemble found what Bruce Springsteen termed “the invisible thread of energy and inspiration”: that state of onstage Zen that makes up for any of a program’s small technical shortcomings. The ensemble explored unique timbres and rhythmic ideas while remaining firm in its accessible tonality. “I’d never heard marimba that way…and I’m a marimba player,” workshop attendee Justin Fligstein said after the show.
Anderson, who organized and runs the five-day workshop, also spoke to the young artists in the audience about the bond that can form between musicians in an ensemble. “Tonight I just feel prompted to say what a blessing it is for me to play with friends,” Anderson said. “To me, this is what it’s about. So hopefully you’ll feel that as you work in your combos this week, and you’ll make great friends.”