Jazz Ensemble Showcases Individual, Collective Talent in Lyman Music Hall

“1, 2, 3, 4,” Barb Catlin, Director of the Pomona College jazz ensemble, whispered as the musicians lifted their instruments to play.

Students, professors, community members and friends and family of the band waited in anticipation to hear the ensemble begin at Lyman Hall in Pomona College’s Thatcher Music Building March 10. The first piece, “Sax Alley,” featured two tenor sax soloists: Sam Miller HM ’17 and Evan Hamaguchi PO ’16. 

Although Hamaguchi was featured in “Sax Alley,” he described a section in another piece, “Body and Soul” when asked about his favorite song of the evening. 

“I’m excited to play the main melody section of our second song, ‘Body and Soul,’ with an alto saxophone melody supplemented by rich harmonies from the entire band,” Hamaguchi said. “It’s a laid-back, fun swing piece that offers both challenges and rewards in demanding nuanced, tightly-synchronized ensemble playing, and the effect is an expressive showcase of individual and collective musicianship.” 

Only a section of the larger ensemble performed for that piece. Catlin, an accomplished jazz educator and pianist, highlighted the importance and difference of playing in smaller groups. 

“Playing in these small groups requires a lot of sensitivity to the music and each other; it is quite different from playing in a big band piece,” she told the audience. “It’s more work and a little scarier because there were things that were happening up there that weren’t planned, and part of that is, how do you get out of those places when the music doesn’t go as planned? For me, I love that; that is what makes it fun.”

In the past, the jazz ensemble was much smaller. The band began to grow after Catlin arrived. 

“My first year here it was basically a combo with some very unusual instruments,” she said. “It was pretty eclectic, and there were only six of us. Each semester it has grown, which is great. I just asked the students to inform their friends about the band and then used more formal methods to advertise.”

Therein arose the need to shift to performing in smaller group pieces, an effort to stay true to the genre of jazz. 

“When you think about what is at the heart of the jazz experience—it’s really improvisation, so in a big band piece, since there is so many people, it just has to be more structured and dictated,” she said. 

When Dan Gordon PO ’17 began playing in the jazz ensemble during his first semester as a first-year, there were only seven or eight members in the ensemble. Now there are twenty. 

“It’s already grown, and I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon,” Gordon said. 

For the very last song, “What is Hip?” the ensemble featured guest vocalist Justin Dixon PZ ’16. The song was performed by the ensemble in its entirety and was an upbeat and exciting piece that had Catlin and the audience clapping to the beat. 

“It’s such a fun piece, and the trumpet parts go really high, which is a perfect combination in my eyes,” Gordon said. 

The ensemble’s next concert will feature a set list more along the lines of “What is Hip?” Unlike this performance, which included a total of ten songs, the majority of which were done in small group, the next one will shift back to bigger band pieces.

“The next concert will be more grandiose—a little more orchestral, a little more serious,” Catlin said. “We are doing some really epic tunes that are really unusual in both compositional aspects and also instrumentation.”

The group will take the stage May 1 in the Bridges Hall of Music for their final performance of the semester. 

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