Bassist Dillon Johns and drummer Haydn Halstead were taking a run at a brand-new tune by trumpeter Nathan Crawford, but the treatment created an unwanted resemblance.

"'On Broadway,'" guitarist Owen Ross said, and the fellow members of his small jazz combo at the University of Montana joined in a chuckle.

"I was hearing more of like a Dilla kind of vibe," Ross said.

"Yeah, we could give that a shot," Crawford said.

Halstead immediately snapped into a minimalist beat that would fit perfectly on "Donuts," the last album by hip-hop producer James Yancee, aka Dilla. Crawford's tune still had swing, but with crackling, hip-hop syncopation that's a world away from the '60s pop chestnut "On Broadway."

Ross and the rhythm section laid down the rhythm and were soon joined by the horn players, Crawford and the saxophonists Eli Wynn, Ross Strauser and Alex McDowell.

After a few run-throughs, they exchanged ideas on the arrangement.

Elsewhere during their rehearsal earlier this week, the group went over pianist Chick Corea's complex fusion track "Portals to Forever" and pianist Bill Evans' "Blue in Green," immortalized on Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue."

The material needed to be ready by Monday, when they and the other small combos from the UM School of Music's Jazz Program will perform at Break Espresso. Later in the week, they have to be in top form for the 36th annual Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival.

Next Thursday and Friday, the students will have clinics with the guest artists, who've recorded with the best in the jazz world.

"You get to have these professionals, who've played with the biggest names and have so much experience, listening to your groups and giving your feedback," said Ross, who's finishing up his degree after some time off to gig in Seattle.

Then in the evenings, the guest artists and the top student groups all perform for the public.

"It's a big honor to get to share the stage with world-class musicians like that and also for them to be able to impart their knowledge on us and work with the bands," Ross said.

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Each fall, students can audition for spots in the Jazz Program's seven or eight small combos and four big bands.

The students are divided into groups based on skill level, and every student gets a slot.

The two top small combos are called the Lance Boyd combos, in recognition of Boyd, who ran the program for more than four decades before his retirement in 2012. (The groups often generate punning nicknames, such as Boyds to Men or Soulja Boyds.)

Each semester, program director Rob Tapper and fellow instructor Johan Eriksson generate a theme. Sometimes it's the work of a particular artist or a set of albums. Last semester homed in on the influential compositions of saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Previous semesters have spotlighted Herbie Hancock, Charlie Parker and Wayne Shorter.

This semester, they opted to focus on two albums from the canon that every jazz musician should be well acquainted with: Davis' "Kind of Blue," widely considered the greatest jazz album of all time and one that popularized jazz based on modes and scales instead of chord progressions; and "Saxophone Colossus," tenor legend Sonny Rollins' 1956 hard-bop classic.

Tapper said the groups themselves pick a song or two from each to work on, and collectively decide the approach they'd like to follow.

"They're taking music off of those recordings and many of the students are writing their own arrangements," Eriksson said.

Others create their own transcriptions, attempting to mirror the recording as closely as possible, or bring in other tunes they want to arrange.

Strauser, for instance, is arranging that Corea tune, "Portals to Forever," which Eriksson noted is quite tricky. Ross, for instance, had to re-create a rapid ascending series of arpeggios on six strings instead of two hands on a keyboard.

***

The groups meet for rehearsals and also with their instructor – in the case of this combo, Eriksson, a doctorate-holding saxophonist and instructor in both the jazz and classical genres.

This group was particularly experienced and more independent, Eriksson said. Other younger groups will need more of a framework if they haven't taken courses in arrangement and composition yet.

Because of demand, this particular group had a four-horn front line, placing it on the larger end of the small-combo spectrum.

"We had to have pretty decent-sized groups, which is cool because there's a lot you can do when you're arranging when you have four horns to work with," Ross said.

For his take on "Blue in Green," Ross said he "tried to take concepts that I would use for a big band and do it in a smaller setting."

His arrangement wasn't a dead ringer for Davis' 1960s version, nor is it required to be.

"They don't have to play the tunes in the exact style," Tapper said. "Knowing those tunes better, is the point for me."

Some of the members like Ross and Crawford play in the small groups and big bands. A few minutes after their rehearsal wrapped up, members of the big-band filtered in, and they moved on to another set of tunes, another arrangement.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment Editor for The Missoulian.