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JAZZ REVIEW : Music Convention in S.D. Ends With a Bravo Finale

The National Assn. of Jazz Educators Convention ended here Saturday on a note of triumph. Reflecting a rare prescience on the part of the organizers, three of the main participants in the final concert were Grammy nominees; the fourth was the winner of the College Band contest.

Top honors went to Take 6, the a cappella vocal sextet nominated for three Grammys (Best New Artists, Best New Soul/Gospel Group, Best New Jazz Vocal Group). These men (21 to 26), all former students at a Seventh-day Adventist college in Alabama, are quite simply the best vocal group in the country today.

Even the astounding success last spring of their first album did not prepare the audience for the visual impact. Along with a gorgeous harmonic blend, they displayed humor, charm and personality, distilling a rhythmic fervor that had the crowd in an uproar.

Their lyrics (some traditional, some original) are couched in a Christian spirit of love: “If We Ever Needed the Lord Before, We Sure Do Need Him Now,” “Spread Love,” “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Get Away Jordan.” From the lead tenor Claude McKnight to the sonorous bass voice of Alvin Chea, they are riveting.

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Their closer was a sing-along during which the six men quit the stage one at a time, finally leaving the audience singing on its own. In an age of electronic gimmickry, rock lyrics and garbled diction, it was easy to infer their final message: If we ever needed a group like this, we sure do need it now.

The Berklee College Jazz Ensemble from Boston, given the thankless task of following Take 6, displayed the constant creative and technical growth of collegiate jazz. The Berklee musicians had emerged as winners during a matinee; the other finalists, from the University of North Texas and William Patterson College in New Jersey, gave them tough competition.

Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis led the group, which boasted a cohesive ensemble spirit on such future star soloists as trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart on alto sax, and Masahiko Osaka, drums.

Branford Marsalis, Delfeayo’s older brother, himself a Berklee alumnus, sat in with the group to blow some devastating tenor sax, offering evidence of how he earned his two Grammy nominations (Best Small Group Jazz, Best Jazz Soloist). Tim Owens scatted the blues, adding a welcome vocal change of pace during a performance that showed the band’s versatility.

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The Count Basie Orchestra followed with a set that topped its own performance of the previous night. No longer saddled by a script and unfamiliar material, the men reminded us that beat for beat, this is still the best surviving reminder of big-band jazz with the accent on swing.

Leader Frank Foster and fellow tenor man Eric Dixon and Kenny Hing kept the temperature high; Bob Ojeda and old-timer Sonny Cohn sparked a great trumpet section; Danny House, the band’s youngest member, brought his eloquent alto sax sound to a solo number, and Carmen Bradford, who gets better all the time, left one wondering why she doesn’t record an album in this setting.

Saxophonist Michael Brecker, also a Grammy nominee in the small group category, closed the show with a set that pleased some of the more ardent fusion fans, though there were too many droning moments that recalled nothing less than a concerto for bagpipes.

The intense interest in jazz at every educational level was never more prodigiously displayed than during this three-day event, which often seemed more like a festival than a convention. It was notable, too, that Herb Alpert of A&M; Records, in a moving speech Friday night, had contributed $100,000 to a scholarship fund, speaking warmly of the men in whose names he had made the donation: Louis Armstrong, Gil Evans, Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker. With friends like Alpert and and a sponsor like Southern Comfort (annual supporter of the college band contest), jazz and its pedagogues and protagonists can continue to thrive.

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