Aidan Chamberlin, assistant professor at UTT informed the small audience of about a couple dozen at Martin’s Piano Bar that the performance they were about to witness that cool Friday night (3 October) was the debut public performance of the newly formed Keate Street Jazz Octet conscripted from the staff of UTT Music department with Alea Nicholson sitting in as guest pianist. Their agglomeration was inspired by a visit earlier in 2014 by the Michigan State University jazz professors including Trinidadian trumpet ace Etienne Charles, and students. The Americans showcased the possibilities of big band and especially the octet ensembles in the context of jazz: four horns and a rhythm section can swing.
In the context of jazz in Trinidad, the audience was in for the uninspired reading of stock music charts of the jazz greats. With almost sonic perfection—one would expect no less from UTT music instructors—especially from the horn section of Chamberlin on trombone, Anthony Woodroffe, Jr. on tenor sax, Yevgeny Dokshansky on alto sax and Errol Ince on trumpet, the octet moved through a selection of early- to mid-20th century jazz standards ranging from Gershwin (Fascinating Rhythm) and Fats Waller (Ain’t Misbehavin’) to Erroll Garner (Misty) and Dizzy Gillespie (Night in Tunisia).
Two exceptions to this pattern were, however, “Byrdflight,” a cut from the final edition of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers’ recorded repertoire, and Freddie Redd’s ode to the late influential bebop arranger Tadd Dameron, “Had Tadd in Mind” from the mid-1980s. With these songs, the group were put to the test of harnessing the bebop rhythm and exchange. One can hear the classical training coming through in some of the players. That jazz articulation, uneven by default, that swing was missing from the double-bassist Caitlyn Kamminga’s playing, and as such the drive and dynamism of the band was muted to a stolid presence.
As an act of putting into the public domain new collaborations by and with our local musicians, this combo is a happy beginning and a cultural hit. This octet serves as a reminder of the superior entertainment possibilities like the earlier showcase featuring the foreign-born UTT string and reed musicians and local guitarists to recreate early Trinidad music of Lovey and Belasco. This exchange between musicians of different music experience and starting points is the joy of jazz. The buttery tone of Woodroffe’s tenor sax, and the flirtingly delicate staccato passages on Ince’s masterful trumpet playing were showcase highlights. The rhythm section of Josh Watkins on drums, Theron Shaw on guitar, Nicholson on piano and Kamminga on bass blended styles and experience that in time will augur well.
The bandstand is a hell of a thing. A keen listener and observer would hear and see things that would suggest that the hesitance at the octet’s beginnings mirrors a sorting out of roles. Chamberlin admitted that as band leader that he was tentative in the initial showcase in terms of new arrangements, and settled for the sheet music as a guide. The vast body of transcribed jazz standards offers security and satisfaction to both artiste and audience. The octet’s reading of the peerless compositions of Jobim and Ellington was dignified.
An audience is lucky to have more options for musical experience in these islands. Inauspicious premières are not always dire portents. As Derek Walcott noted in defending creativity in the West Indies, “what will come out of there is like nothing one has ever seen before.” If this octet holds, the din of nostalgia would give way to native possibilities, all tinged with excellent musicianship.
- An edited version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian published as “Good start, but let the vibes flow”
© 2014, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.