USC Jazz Quintet
Better than… drinking beer alone in a Pasadena park.
Last night in Pasadena, USC offered up their best and brightest jazz crew to revel in a little school pride and highlight the impressive capabilities of staff and alumni for a cool evening under the stars before an attentive crowd of jazz fans and proud Trojans.
With faculty members Alan Pasqua on piano, Darek Oles on bass, and Peter Erskine on drums, fronted by alumni Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet and Greg Johnson on saxophone, it would have been hard to find a better band in any US college to occupy the teacher's lounge.
At exactly 7 p.m., the quintet hit the stage and opened with Thelonious Monk's “Monk's Dream.” Johnson filled Charlie Rouse's shoes admirably with a honking confidence over the churning rhythm section. Oles, although a little buried in the sound system, took a tasteful solo that was punctuated by the first of two helicopters to circle the park.
The band later provided a couple of Dizzy Gillespie tunes. “Woody 'N You” was a bop workout that had Pasqua dropping chords behind the horn men like weighted darts, each cluster pushing them further into their hiccupping phrases. Eventually he took a Tristano-esque solo, launching a barrage of low end notes over Erskine's brushes. The band finished the tune with a clatter, audibly amused. They were clearly working through a book of audition-ready standards, their modifications worthwhile but hardly road tested.
Gillespie's “Con Alma” reworked the horn harmonies into a tighter knot before Johnson made a strong plea over the mid-tempo swing. Erskine provided a breezy solo as Pasqua and Oles stoically paced the changes behind him.
The group then offered up a pair of Monk tunes. Pasqua and Akimusire shined as a duo through the melody while Oles' solo featured the other thumping helicopter. Nonetheless the band upheld a tasteful swing that led to the more upbeat “Bye-Ya” featuring Erskine in a popping intro. Akinmusire and Johnson staggered the melody before exchanging bright eight bar solos. Oles took an uninterrupted solo this time as Erskine tapped a gently metallic samba.
On what appeared to be a reworking of “If I Were a Bell,” Johnson stretched across his horn's range backed only by Erskine. The evening had set in when a spotlight was placed on Erskine for a solo of his own, pummeling his kit to a few enthusiastic “woos” from the crowd.
Set closer “Fujimama” hit a near calypso vibe as each band member gave their closing statements. After the band said “goodnight,” the crowd began packing up — only to be offered an encore that pushed the concert to over an hour and a half.
A subtle take on “Equinox” provided departure music for half the crowd while the other half stayed, applauding each solo as they had throughout the night.
The band finished as strongly as they started, coalescing into a perfect ambassadorship for the program. The polished professionalism of the younger horn players meshed easily with the one of the most dependable rhythm sections in Los Angeles. The caliber of musicianship coming in and going out of that school was abundantly clear.
It's too bad UCLA isn't answering the challenge in Pasadena this season.
Personal Bias: I got my jazz nerd diploma from the blue & gold.
The Crowd: Diverse and attentive. Lots of USC football jerseys. Lots of dogs. Lots of very elaborate lawn chairs.
Random Notebook Dump: Audience quote: “It sounds like the Snoopy song.” Can we get a new point of reference for jazz in the 21st century? Please?