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Smooth Jazz With Java

Jazz and Java, a night of fresh gourmet coffee, lip smacking bite-sized desserts, and a distinct mix of jazz beats, hit off its twelfth annual show on Thursday. At 7:30 PM in the Student Memorial Center, a swinging rendition of Duke Ellington’s jazz standard “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” was performed. The song, which featured impressive solos from the saxophone section, set the tone for what was an exceptional night of music.

The Millersville University Jazz Ensemble was directed by Dr. Keith Wiley, a trumpet player who also directs the concert band and teaches in the music department.

The group was been working on a wide variety of selections since January, and has been working on the pieces played for “Jazz and Java” for about two months. Despite having limited time to practice, the band had little trouble coming together and getting performance-ready.

“The students are self-motivated. They played very well, and the audience response was positive. It was well received, which is really the best gauge you have as a performer.” Wiley said.

With such a great catalog of music, it was easy for the audience to appreciate it. The band performed familiar classics like “Come Fly With Me” featuring soloist Theresa Walker, as well as selections off the beaten path like “Snakes,” carried out with dexterity by the entire ensemble.

In addition to the skillfulness of the band, the show featured soloist Chris Vidala, literally a professor of the saxophone and director of jazz studies at the University of Maryland. A long-time friend of Dr. Wiley, he was a guest at Millersville twice before.

“He’s inspiring,” Wiley said, “Every time I hear him, it’s even better.”

His solo in “A Night in Tunisia” was sharp and crisp. The sustained scream of one note was especially remarkable. Although he improvised most of his performance, he was never out of step with the band. Not one to showboat, he accompanied the ensemble without ever overwhelming them, adding flavor and panache to the songs. He used both the soprano and alto sax, switching between smooth trills and high-pitched screams seemingly without effort. In one number, Vidala did an acoustic solo with a toned-down, almost purer sound.

Senior Christine Arnold, a six-year euphonium (tenor tuba) player and three-year trombone player, was excited for the opportunity to play with such a dynamic musician. “I think that his performance really showed his virtuosity as a saxophonist and really showed a lot of passion for what he does,” Arnold said, “He was very energetic while he performed, which I had noticed both the band members and audience members really seemed to pick up on. It really was an honor and privilege to perform with such a great musician.”

Vidala’s his love and passion for music are more than evident while watching him perform.

“I always enjoy [coming to Millersville],” Vidala said, “The band is always well prepared–that’s probably to be attributed to Dr. Wiley; he’s good at what he does, he enjoys getting people comfortable with the material.”

Despite only having one practice together before the performance, Vidala worked seamlessly with the band.

“That’s the mark of a good group; they put things in place, and come together easily. As far as the music is concerned, they had it all together,” Arnold said.

Vidala, who has worked with the Chuck Mangione quartet, is working on the soundtrack for the film “Children of Sanchez,” and sees performing as the height of musical experience.

“The interaction with live performances, with different ensembles of different levels…there’s no replacement for that,” Vidala said. “There’s a special connection, it’s all of the moment.”

Members of the ensemble made individual contributions that both supplemented and enhanced the overall performance. In their rendition of “Angel Eyes,” the band kept up the relatively slow tempo while keeping the song spirited and lively. “Self Help,” a very busy song in terms of harmony, flowed well, without a single mistake despite frequent rhythm variation.

“Big Dipper,” one of the last numbers of the evening, included a solid intro from the saxophone section, and also featured a notable trumpet solo. The song was a good end piece, displaying the blues influence in the jazz sound.

Overall, it was a successful night. The coffee was tasty and the food was scrumptious, but, more importantly, the ensemble came together to present cogent interpretations of jazz music, both individually and as a group.