WESTBROOK — “The band is swingin’!” was the final word from Chris Oberholtzer, the director of the jazz program at the University of Southern Maine, as he listened to the Mount Desert Elementary School jazz band perform Saturday, March 23 at the state middle school instrumental jazz festival.
“I hear a lot of great teaching,” he said. “Great job, Ms. [Heather] Graves and kids. That was a lot of fun. Great attention to style and detail.”
Oberholtzer and other judges also praised the diverse selection of pieces, the students’ dynamic range and control, and “mature sound.”
The MDES band was the only group in their division to receive a “gold” rating from the group of judges. All of the soloists in the band received “1” ratings: Sophia Taylor on alto sax, Sig Reinholdt on bass, Treyan Nelson on the drum set, Callan Eason on tenor sax, Taber Allen on trumpet, Mia Eason on trumpet, Brendan Graves on trombone and Cole Watson on alto sax.
Reinholdt, Nelson and Graves also received outstanding musicianship awards.
“They play music at a very high level for their age,” band director Heather Graves said. The program chosen for the competition was “Touchin’ all the Basses” by Andy Clark, an arrangement of “Send in the Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim and “Jumping at the Woodside,” which was a signature of the Count Basie Orchestra.
“Sometimes you take a risk and play higher level music, and it falls flat,” Graves said. “And sometimes it works and it just kind of knocks people’s socks off.”
The band has 29 members this year, which is the largest group Graves has had. The day of the festival, several students were hurrying between jazz and a YMCA swim meet — Brendan Graves hurried back to the meet as soon as the jazz performance ended, to compete in a relay.
One of the challenges of the jazz competition is that some groups only work on three pieces all year, and it can be a challenge to keep them fresh. Graves said she cancelled the last rehearsal before the competition, and a few of the rehearsals before that she mixed it up and had the band play standing in a circle, rather than on risers facing her.
Another secret weapon, she said, is parent volunteer Jesse Cameron. He has assisted with the band for the last several years, serving as a second teacher and set of ears and also teaching improvisation.
“That was one thing that the judges just couldn’t get over,” Graves said of the students’ skill at improvising.
Cameron has also been working with Reinholdt, Nelson, Watson and Brendan Graves as a small combo, which is “unheard of for middle school,” Heather Graves said.
Next up, the big group and the combo were set to perform a community outreach concert Thursday, April 4 on Isle au Haut.
This will be the second trip to Isle au Haut for the band, in collaboration with the Maine Seacoast Mission. They play a set, including several new pieces that weren’t part of the competition, and the combo plays, and then they DJ a community dance. They meet with the students at the school there, who this year are all in the elementary grades.
The students “impressed the state with their amazing musicianship, but they also don’t just care about competing, they’re excited about sharing their talent and doing a community service outreach project,” Graves said.