It was a week away from the concert, and a student big band at the University of Montana was rehearsing for its rehearsal, in a way.
Arranged in a circle downstairs in the Music Building on campus were a section each of trumpet players, saxophonists and trombones, in addition to a rhythm section and a vibraphone player.
Jazz activities director and trombone professor Rob Tapper was leading them through “Speak,” by James Miley, a pianist, composer and arranger who will be on campus next week. Tapper wanted them ready when the award-winning musician from Willamette University showed up Monday.
Miley will work with students on improvisation, composition and arranging, and also rehearse all four big bands for the show.
That’s one more large ensemble than UM had last year.
“We had so many kids audition that we created a fourth big band,” Tapper said.
There’s more interest in the jazz program in general, said Tapper, who took over the reins last year. He credited high school outreach efforts of the School of Music and saxophone instructor Johan Eriksson.
As a whole, they’ve been “trying to get out there and show the Northwest what we have to offer and that we’re trying to help their program and their kids,” Tapper said.
In that spirit, the Bozeman High School Jazz Band I will also get to work with Miley a bit, and will perform on Wednesday as well.
Tapper gave an abbreviated list of Miley’s credentials – awards for composition and arrangements, and instrumental abilities that have taken him around the world.
The role model aspect – something not usually associated with dusty cliches of musicians in general – is also important to Tapper.
“Not only is he an amazing musician, composer and teacher, he’s a wonderful guy who has a beautiful perspective on music and the world,” Tapper said.
At the Wednesday concert, each of the four big bands will perform some traditional material, in addition to a piece each by Miley – an original, or an arrangement.
The lower-level groups’ material will sound more like what listeners associate with big band, while the more advanced student musicians will present more contemporary and crossover material, such Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.”
In the rehearsal room, there were starts and stops as Tapper gave instructions to the rhythm section or the horn players on the harmonically rich arrangement or its uneven bar lengths. (“That’s crazy. That’s really crazy. We gotta be sure we keep tabs on that,” he said of one section.)
Much of that work falls on the rhythm section, including drummer Kenny Sager, a first-year graduate student.
“Most music is in 4/4, like AC/DC – one, two, three, four – but this has got a lot of fives and sixes, and also the phrasing is odd,” he said.
“Most rock songs or pop songs are in eight-bar phrases. Say this one might have 10, or nine or seven. It’s interesting to try to navigate the different phrases and bar-time signatures,” he said.
Jake Syrenne, a tenor saxophonist and fourth-year member of the big band, hadn’t heard Miley’s music before the work began.
His major, instrumental jazz studies, covers everything from performance to arrangement classes, and he was impressed by the harmonic richness of Miley’s charts.
“It’s more like an orchestra or wind ensemble piece than anything,” he said, not a “big screaming jazz chart.”
Before Tapper dismissed the class, he told the students they’d have a blast next week, but encouraged them to be prepared, and “leave no stone unturned.”
“He’s a great guy, but music is music,” Tapper said.