When it comes to the Prescott jazz scene, there is no lack of talent — seasoned pros who have lived their lives on the road, in military bands, performed oversees, and in smokey jazz clubs, as well as concert venues with some of the biggest names in music.
Yavapai College and its jazz bands have been reaping the rewards of this transplanted community of talent.<br />
Yavapai College has not one, but two jazz big bands. Big Band One — or The Roughriders — is comprised of full-time students and a few area pros. The second band is The Trailblazers, which is a collection of professional and retired jazz musicians, along with scholarship students.
Under the direction of Chris Tenney, this talented group brings a range of sounds to the stage presenting both traditional and contemporary big band pieces as well as original compositions and arrangements from band members.
As to what makes a band a “big band,” a jazz big band is generally comprised of 18 to 21 players including saxophonists, trumpets and trombones, and a rhythm section. Think of Stan Kenton, Count Bassie, Duke Ellington and, more recently, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Bublé.
With more than 14 years in the music education field, Tenney, has been with Yavapai College for the past seven as the director of Instrumental Music at Yavapai College. His age of 39 puts him right in the middle of a group, who range from 18 to 83.
Tenney is aware of the history of talent he has the good fortune of directing. “Pick the hardest music you can find and hold on for dear life,” was the advice Tenney received when taking on the position as director. “I also look to the wealth of talent and experience for suggestions on pieces and ways to make the band really shine,” he said.
“In a lot of ways, this band creates the lifeblood of the jazz music scene in Prescott,” Tenney said. “Basically, every pro in town, with a few exceptions, is either currently playing or has played with The Trailblazers. The band has quite the resume.”
Sax player Dave Russell has been with the band for 20 years and also plays throughout the area with other jazz combos. Russell has had the good fortune of playing with a range of talented musicians and recalls 2012 when The Trailblazers took first place at the Reno Jazz Festival partly due to their rendition of “I Remember Clifford,” arranged by the late trumpet player and member Bill West.
As further proof of the group’s collaborative spirit, last year they recorded an original samba written by a student as an audition piece for Berklee College of Music. Partially as result of their efforts, the student received a full four-year scholarship in the writing and composition program.
“It’s great to see the growth of interest in jazz when it comes to younger musicians,” Tenney said. “I have to work to keep up with them and enjoy having them bring in new works. Sometimes they are literally ‘new’ and there are others that are ‘new discoveries’ from the American Song Book or other sources.”
Knowing that no one is beyond a challenge adds another level of unique creativity to The Trailblazers’ play list.
“I’m not afraid of picking music that is perhaps just out of the band’s reach. If I have to choose between a good sounding, but safe program, or a show that may have some imperfections, but stand-out moments of brilliance… I’m gonna go for the brilliance that makes this talented group really shine,” Tenney adds.
As a genre, the popularity of jazz has a tendency to ebb and flow as to the charts. But in many ways, jazz is the foundation to almost every other genre out there, be it pop or blues, and jazz big bands continue to have a following that carry it forward.
As to the future of The Trailblazers? “We’re at the stage where the next obvious step is to share the stage with current pros who are either still touring or living a life of retirement, but still guest gigging. So look for guest musicians to split the bill so to speak in the coming years on the Yavapai stage with The Trailblazers.”
The Trailblazers perform in the Jim & Linda Lee Performing Arts Center at Yavapai College with their Oct. 4 concert exhibiting a cross section of styles of jazz with “Blackbird” by Lennon & McCartney, “Tippin’ in” by Bobby Smith, “Samba del Gringo” by Gordon Goodwin, and few more including “Birdland” by Joe Zawinul, arranged by Victor Lopez.
For more information, visit ycpac.com.
Barry Barbe owns the El Gato Azul and Torme restaurants in Prescott, and is the energy and insight behind the Prescott Palette. His radio show, the Prescott Palette, is on KQNA 1130 AM, Saturdays at noon. Email: Prespalette@gmail.com.