Swinging for the Fences

Swinging for the Fences

When Neighborhood Music School’s Premier Jazz Ensemble opened for up-and-coming jazz pianist Christian Sands at the 2016 New Haven Jazz Festival, the group’s tenor saxophonist, Ryan Griffiths, was starstruck. Sands walked up to him before the gig to say hello, and “I didn’t really know what to say besides, ‘Oh. Hey,’” Griffiths says with a laugh. Funny thing is, Griffiths, now a senior at North Haven High School, is an elite musician, too, training in the same ordinary basement room on Audubon Street where Sands’s career powered up.

In fact, the Premier Jazz Ensemble, founded by Jim Fryer, the former head of NMS’s Jazz Department, and directed for the last 15 years by Jeff Fuller, has been the launch pad for a full payload of professional musicians. They include not only Sands but numerous other touring and teaching musicians as well as a composer, a sound designer and several currently pursuing degrees in music. “There’s been some real brilliant young players that have come through this ensemble,” guitarist Gary Grippo says. “It’s amazing how good these kids get in such a short period of time, which is inspiring for me.” Grippo, who is also a jazz DJ at WNHU radio, and upright bassist Paul Shanley are the group’s two long-term adult musicians—Neighborhood Music School isn’t just for kids—in an otherwise teen-centric ensemble that plays like the pros.

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On a recent Tuesday evening, the group wandered in for their regular rehearsal, took up their instruments and began warming up. Pianist Anton Kot, a student at Jonathan Law High School in Milford and the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, played a few bars, stopped, played a few more. Alto saxophonist Kenijah George of Hillhouse High and ECA did the same. Tyler Jenkins (Wilbur Cross and ECA) sat down at the drums, and Diego Padilla (Co-op High School) joined them on trombone, along with Griffiths, Shanley and Grippo, and suddenly—did George start it?—they were playing a tune. Fuller was busy writing the dates of upcoming gigs on a chalkboard and sifting through a stack of sheet music—jazz standards he’s arranged for the ensemble. Then he was up and calling them together. The group of seven was missing only their trumpet player, Tyler Felson of Guilford High School.

“I get a thrill out of working with the students and seeing them improve and hearing them perform,” Fuller says. Recently retired from a 20-year teaching career at ECA and now teaching with the Yale Jazz Initiative and Sacred Heart University as well as NMS, Fuller is himself an active musician, playing upright bass with his own band and with a fluid pool of freelancers who perform together in different configurations. But working with the Premier Jazz Ensemble is clearly more than another job for him. “I love to represent Neighborhood Music School in the community,” Fuller says. “Music is my life, so any time I’m involved in music is a blessing.”

The high school members of the ensemble seem to feel the same. “I really like how much repertoire we go through,” Jenkins says, pulling a fat folder out of his backpack. “It’s really awesome to get to play this much music with such musicians.” They all push one another to be better, he adds.

The ensemble is not just “an academic exercise, but real-world experience,” according to NMS director of programs Noah Bloom. The same goes for NMS premier string, winds and dance ensembles, but the jazz ensemble is “our most in-demand ensemble,” he reports. Last year they played more than 20 performances.

Professional gigs require focused weekly rehearsals. Up first at this one is a tune by jazz great Horace Silver, who hailed from Norwalk: “Split Kick.” Fuller reminds Kot he has to fill in for the missing trumpet part. He stops the group several times to talk through the finer points of rhythm, how their parts fit together, who will take a solo when, the origin of the tune (“There Will Never Be Another You,” popularized by Nat King Cole). Then they pick up the tempo, and as they reach the ending, Fuller calls out more direction: go to the second ending, cheat the solo by four bars, “Second ending now!” When they’re finished, they back up and refine the final chord before moving on to another Silver tune, “Nica’s Dream.”

“Why don’t we take it down”—slower—“the first time through?” Fuller says. Mid-piece, he claps three times and calls out George for a solo. Then he wanders the room, sheet music in hand, standing in the middle of the sound with his head bowed to listen. Padilla takes a solo next. Then Fuller asks: Do the horns know what’s going to happen next? Are they ready? Jenkins jumps in to solo on the drums.

The improvisation feels loose and easy, the tempo free, but behind it is close attention to every part and every note, and to a maxim Fuller shouts out to his crew: “Swing it, swing it, swing it!”

Neighborhood Music School Premier Jazz Ensemble
100 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
(203) 624-5189
Next Gig: Sun 5/27, 10:30am-1:30pm, Elm City Market
Jazz Department Recital: Wed 5/30, 7pm, NMS

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 depicts Gary Grippo. Image 2 depicts Tyler Jenkins. Image 3 depicts Diego Padilla. Image 4 depicts Anton Kot.

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