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Fresno State Jazz Orchestra kicks off concert season

Autumn brings many things to the valley: the changing colors of foliage, early evenings, and cool, relaxed temperatures. But nothing could have been “cooler” Monday night than the celebrated return of the jazz concert season here at Fresno State.

The Fresno State Jazz Orchestra took the stage at the Fresno State Concert Hall, and delivered a new twist on some old standards.

Director Alan Durst, lecturer of music and jazz studies on campus said, “We wanted to bridge different generations of jazz and make it exciting for both the students and audience.”

The roster is one of the youngest he has seen in a while.

“They will only continue to get better, as they will be playing together for the next four years,” Durst said.

The ensemble played three tunes ranging from Charlie Parker’s “Moose the Mooche,” highlighted by Natalia Tomasello’s alto sax solo, to Tommy Dorsey’s classic, “Song of India” which featured a trombone solo by Barbara Shinaver.

The last tune was a complicated melody named “Centri-Fusion” by Mike Crotty. The rendition, which resembled “Brecker meets Cameo,” as Durst calls it, was punctuated by Harry McComb’s solo on tenor sax.

The students were eager to stick around after their own performance, because the stars of the show, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, were set to take the stage next.

Durst, who received his doctorate in music from UCLA, recalled the wide diversity of students’ hometowns while going to school in Los Angeles.

“A lot of students that come from Fresno, want to go to school here,” Durst said. “So when you have a former teacher that will be performing on this type of venue, it really reaches the students on another level.”

The JCO is made up of a mix of Valley educators.

Guitarist Mike Dana formed the group back in 2004, and the lineup has grown steadily over the years. Dana, joined by Dale Engstrom on trumpet and Joe Lizama on vibes, are all Fresno City College music instructors and FSU alumni.

Add another former Fresno State instructor, and FCC music chair Larry Honda on tenor saxophone, and you can see why the kids stuck around.

The roster of players is an impressive lineup. The unit boasts 13 out of 19 as Fresno State graduates. The brass section alone is a solid representation of Fresno State graduates, headed up by Michael Caldwell, former Fresno State music chair from 2010-2012, and backed by Scott Dean, Thomas Lake, and Joe Lewis.

The woodwind section, led by Honda, received strong support from Steve Dailey and John Ayala, a retired Fresno Unified School District teacher and both Fresno State grads. Paul Lucckesi, alumnus, brought up the rear with his baritone sax.

The audience Monday night was a mixture of senior citizens, parents and students.  Dick Crawford was sitting in his regular seat, the same one he has been sitting in for the last 30 years.

“I used to work for Mike Dana’s father, years ago,” Crawford said. “He encouraged my wife and I to come to (Fresno State) to see his son play.”

Kyle Emmi, 13, music student at Alta Sierra Middle School, came to see his trumpet mentor Scott Dean. Youngsters like Emmi are encouraged to study a little harder after seeing their peers on stage.

“I have a new appreciation for jazz, and music in general now,” Emmi said.

Lucckesi, also the music director at Alta Sierra, plays some jazz music every day for the students.

“It gives them a chance to fully develop their tastes in the large field of music,” Lucckesi said.

Lizama, a drummer by trade and percussion instructor at FCC, is always expanding his repertoire and performed on vibes, a fairly new instrument for him.

“I feel like I’m the rookie in the band, so I really need to work hard to keep up with the boys,” Lizama said.

Later this month Lizama will pick up his trusty drumsticks again, as he will travel out to his “side gig” as he calls it.  Lizama has been the touring drummer for pop icon Johnny Mathis, for the past 32 years.

Filling the drummer’s chair is the recognizable face of Brian Hamada. Students may recognize him as the jazz drum set instructor here at Fresno State. Combined with Lizama’s percussion additions, the thumping bass work of Rodney Yokota, and the solid piano work of David Aus, the JCO mesmerized the audience with the music.

The JCO debuted a new arrangement of a Freddie Hubbard classic by trumpeter Joe Lewis, and also performed a rarely heard version of Clare Fischer’s “The Quiet Side.” Honda has a particular soft spot for Fischer and was quite pleased the song was included in the performance.

“He passed away last January, and was considered one of the great musicians and songwriters of the 20th century,” Honda said.

Fischer was best known for his arrangements for Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan and Prince, among others. Honda was able to secure the arrangement to this piece from Fischer’s family and widow in southern California.

“The piece was nearly forgotten, until I reminded the family of this masterpiece,” he said.

Dana, who directs the enclave, said he always feels right at home here at Fresno State.

“It’s always great to play with the (Fresno State) Jazz Orchestra. After all, it is my alma mater,” Dana said. “And most of the guys in the band went there, too. I guess we’re keeping the legacy going.”

All of the JCO musicians and educators agree that it is so important for their students to interact with the actual performances.

“The concept is for the students to see their teachers as human, and make them more accessible and approachable,” Durst said. “They could all quit their day jobs, but who would teach the children?”

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