The Orpheum Theatre was packed last Saturday evening for the culmination of the 30th annual Rootabaga Jazz Festival. The audience was first delighted by the always incredible Knox Jazz Ensemble (KJE), directed by Nikki Malley, and then treated to the Matt Wilson Quartet, this year’s guest artist.
For this concert, KJE chose their music from a wide repertoire, exercising their breathing strength with slow jazz tunes. During one song, senior Cory Heppner dazzled the audience with his sensual and soulful guitar solo, which resonated throughout the auditorium. Another song featured senior trombonist Yumi Kusunoki. Her big sound and skillful melodies were met by much appreciation from the audience, especially the alumni section at the middle balcony.
Senior Alex Kayne and junior Patrick Dooley both wowed the audience with several technically impressive trumpet solos. Whether muted or straight, planned or improvisational, both musicians’ sounds resonated throughout the space, a nod to their excellent musicianship and control.
Finally, seniors Mike Yu and Doug Fennig were stars from the saxophone section. Both played intricate solos and led their sections during the big-band moments in the show. Yu, who also plays clarinet, showed his extreme talent in multiple songs where his notes flew all over the scale.
While the band was top-notch, adding senior Devan Cameron’s vocals during two numbers pushed the experience into over-the-top jazz. In this performance, instead of belting the jazz tunes as she is capable of, Cameron gave a more controlled rendition of our old favorite pieces. She displayed a considerable amount of talent during both numbers, showing off her superior vocal range and showmanship.
During the performance, Malley took the time to recognize the founder of Rootabaga, Mona Tourlentes, and her predecessor, Scott Garlock, who helped the Festival grow to the lengths it is today. Both were given stone Rootabaga wall hangings as a token of appreciation. Certainly, we should all be thankful. Matt Wilson’s quartet also joined KJE onstage.
Matt Wilson Quartet
This year’s distinguished guest at the festival was Knoxville native percussionist Matt Wilson and his quartet. Wilson has played the Festival several times in the past. His show this year was interesting and intriguing, melting jazz music and theatrics to create the overall experience.
Wilson and the quartet played several original tunes, including two inspired by Carl Sandburg poems. During those tunes, the quartet chanted or sung the poems along with the melody.
Wilson also took several solos on the drums, changing the cymbals and drums mid-tune.
The group also played a mixture of heavy metal and jazz, paying homage to Iron Man, among others. Wilson wore a long-haired wig for the tune, mimicking heavy metal drumstick twirls and tricks. At the end, Wilson flung his sticks into the audience.
Overall the show was very entertaining and it was a treat to hear Wilson’s Quartet back at Knox.