The Meridian Arts Ensemble brass quintet, founded at the Juilliard School in 1987, made its Southern California debut Monday night at Ambassador Auditorium. Trumpeters Richard Kelley and Jon Nelson, hornist Daniel Grabois, trombonist Benjamin Herrington and tubist Raymond Stewart showed that the boundary between chic classical and chic jazz consists more in whether the notes are written out than in whether the mood is cool.
Opening the program, arrangements of Coperario, Gibbons and Albinoni indicated that the group's primary concerns were for subtle attitude and color rather than for the extrovert spirits of more mainstream brass groups.
Phillip Johnston's clever "Sleeping Beauty," which followed, showed off Meridian's sense of humor, with Johnston's use of comic vocal techniques and the players' acting skills delighting the audience.
Next, John Halle's "Softshoe" received its West Coast premiere, a smooth 10-minute reminiscence of Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis and Bootsy Collins in which the ensemble created near-symphonic richness and depth with seemingly simple materials.
After intermission, Meridian demonstrated the full range of its virtuosity in Yale composer Jan Radzynski's "Take Five," a 20-minute suite made up of musical portraits of the composer's friends, musical puns and wisecracks alternating with moments of quietly dark beauty.
The program ended with Norman Yamada's musical observations on street life in New York called "Mundane Dissatisfactions," Nelson's sophisticated arrangements of five Frank Zappa tunes and, as an encore, Chris Hughes' arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's "Lushlife."
The Zappa performances were notable because Meridian worked with the composer for an hour last Friday learning, among other things, that "Mr. Zappa likes audiences to sing along" with instrumental arrangements of his vocal pieces.