Effective leadership and successful teaching share the factor of selection in that if you have a good team or good students it makes the task a lot easier and good results more certain. I must have selected well judging by the way my NYU student ensemble came through in our just completed tour of the Baltic country of Latvia; they hit the ball completely out of the park, fulfilling and exceeding expectations on every level.
Followers of the blog know that this trip was a reschedule of a tour originally slated and prepared for April during last semester, but travel difficulties arising from the Icelandic volcano situation resulted in a dramatic last minute cancellation of the trip. This was a real drag for all hands; certainly for us since we had been preparing musically and otherwise for the tour all semester, and equally a disappointment for our hosts in Latvia (the US Embassy and their Latvian presenter partners) who had invested time, effort, and resources into making this opportunity happen in collaboration with NYU and the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). It was touch and go for a while whether we’d be able to get a second chance, but largely due to the efforts of NYFA’s Peter Cobb (also a NYU Jazz grad student and our alto saxist!) along with everyone on the Latvian side, we were able to pull off the remake. I was quite elated to meet the rest of the band at the Riga Radisson hotel on Tuesday, the 24th of August, the students straight from New York and I having flown in the day before from Copenhagen, where I had been playing my music in quartet form the week before.
The first order of business was for everyone to get reacquainted with the music through a rehearsal. We hadn’t played together since the end of the semester in May, but there was no rust and the cats had kept the clave consciousness together that I had worked with them on in preparation for performing the Latin jazz program of music for this tour. We also commenced to getting to know our liaison and guides from the US Embassy, Davida Baxter and Lauma Bruvele, who we became quite close to over the next few days. They made everything easy and smooth for us from a to z! OK, time to get some rest and have the cats try to deal with that jet lag, because we would have quite a day of music to play tomorrow….
We were off bright and early the next day to play and be interviewed on a live TV show that day highlighting educational exchange and US culture. We were featured quite heavily, playing three full songs live and Peter and I talking about the tour (Casey Berman, our tenor saxist, go a few words in too). Next we went straight to the local music high school (conservatory) where the ensemble and I did a master class for the students and the general public. A very fine big band, comprising many of the accomplished local players performed a char to for us first and made us aware of the high level of the music scene in the area. After a few suggestions to the band from yrs truly, our ensemble performed one of our pieces. This was the prelude to my lecture demonstration covering the basic concept of clave, instrument patterns in clave and insight into how Latin jazz, by using clave as a rhythmic organizational foundation, is distinct from other styles. This basic program was used for our other master classes over the next two days.
No letup in sight as we again went straight on, this time to a sound check for our evening concert at Artelis, a charming and funky cabaret theatre space that sported great ambiance, good sound, and a most cordial and accommodating staff. After dinner at the club (takeout), we performed a set of our best stuff for an enthusiastic, packed crowd featuring many dignitaries, including the Latvian Minister of Education, the US Ambassador, and the Cultural Affairs officer from the US Embassy. Luminaries from the Latvian music world were there too, including Latvian Jazz Festival organizer (and drummer/bandleader) Maris Briezkalns. After the concert, we all took part in a jam session that gave us an opportunity to hear some more fine Latvian jazz players, this time in an unfettered blowing context. A standout for me was saxophonist Deniss Pashkevich, a completely accomplished and world class player who impressed me on soprano sax playing in a fluent, harmonically sophisticated idiom reminiscent of, but not beholden to, David Liebman.
We made it through the first day! I’ll bet we did more performing than the students had ever experienced in such a concentrated amount of time. A great challenge for the young cats, and they came through it like champions. In the second half of this post I’ll introduce you to each of these new stars on the modern jazz horizon and pick up our tour narrative on the next morning.