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'Big Elephant Brass Band' comes to town

Mark Harvey
Mark Harvey

A vintage 1899 Ringling Brothers Circus poster picturing five elephants playing sousaphones was the inspiration for the title of a unique double bill--the "Big Elephant Brass Band" concert with the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble and Aardvark Jazz Orchestra playing both separately and together on March 8.

Improvisation will play a big part in this performance. Lecturer Mark Harvey, guest conductor for this performance and director of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, combines improvisation and composition not only through improvised solos, but through collective improvisation and improvisation by the conductor. Six members of the Aardvark ensemble held workshops in February with Festival Jazz Ensemble (FJE) students to teach them these methods.

"While we've rehearsed specific notes and written segments, it's really the entire process toward enhanced listening and playing in the moment that constitutes the 'result' of the project," Harvey said.

The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, founded in 1973 by Harvey, is one of the longest-standing big bands in the Boston area. Longtime Aardvark trombonist Jay Keyser, the Peter de Florez Professor Emeritus in linguistics and special assistant to the chancellor, noted that this is a special learning opportunity for FJE members. "The musicians [the students] will be hearing in Aardvark are first-class players," he said. "To watch them work in this both extremely amorphous and extremely controlled art form is a great opportunity."

"The workshops with members of Aardvark are naturally challenging in that they push the boundaries of our working musical knowledge," said FJE trombonist Daniel Halperin, a junior in biology. "The broader challenge, however, comes in infusing these new approaches into our already existing improvisational method."

The "Big Elephant Brass Band" program will include two premieres and Harvey's "Freedom Ring" played by both ensembles. The FJE will do a staple of the Aardvark repertory, "Swing Landscape," and the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra will play "Saxophrenia," a piece Harvey wrote last May for saxophonist Joe Lovano and the FJE.

Harvey describes the program as eclectic. "The audience will hear everything from blues to intense rhythmic grooves to elements that stretch the ears, a la Charles Ives or Charles Mingus, or Sun Ra," said Harvey. "They should come ready to be taken on a real trip--sometimes challenging, sometimes amusing, sometimes pushing the boundaries of postmodern music--but always, we hope, entertaining."

"Big Elephant Brass Band" starts at 8 p.m. on March 8 in Kresge Auditorium. Tickets are $3 at the door. For more information, call 253-2826.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 5, 2003.

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