NEC Celebrates 150 Years with Spirited Gala

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Members of Lake Street Dive (right, stage front) perform with the NEC Gospel Choir at the conservatory’s annual gala on Feb. 16.

(Photo: Andrew Hurlbut)

The indefatigable spirit of Gunther Schuller (1925–2015), preeminent composer, musician, teacher and founder of New England Conservatory’s pioneering Jazz Studies Program nearly 50 years ago, was vitally felt at the conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Feb. 16, 2017, when a celebration of NEC’s 150th birthday was marked with a gala concert. This eclectic evening of music included performances from NEC trumpet, gospel and string ensembles; the NEC jazz orchestra (led by their intrepid conductor, Ken Schaphorst) and a headlining appearance by Lake Street Dive, whose piping hot grooves and soaring exuberance had the audience bopping in their seats.

Schuller would have been proud to hear his Fanfare opening this concert, as the NEC trumpet ensemble spread out in the audience and hoisted their piercing metallic glory to the rafters of Jordan Hall. This regal beginning was followed by a performance by the NEC Chamber Singers in a World Premiere composed by Andrew Haig (NEC ’18) entitled “I Hear.” The short vocal journey was highlighted by Pepita Salim’s soprano leaps and by Haig’s compositional touch in having the performers whisper and converse softly during this pulsating vocal collage.

These vocal riches continued with the appearance of Rachael Price (NEC ’07), lead singer for Lake Street Dive, as she joined the NEC Gospel Ensemble in a soulful rendition of her song “What I’m Doing Here.” Price arrived onstage in a flowing, brightly patterned dress, and her vocal splendor matched her outfit perfectly. Her voice shape-shifted with delectable high notes and perfect pitch, her low notes had soulful color, and she delivered a full-throated attack of vocal delights that never let up in their ease of flow and shifting expression.

Following the gospel roots of “What I’m Doing Here” (with the NEC Gospel Ensemble in stately vocal presence) the full Lake Street Dive joined Price on stage (Mike Olson, NEC ’05 trumpet, guitar; Bridget Kearney NEC ’08, double bass; Mike Calabrese NEC ’07 drums), and together they burst into their musical blaze featuring vintage funk, r&b and blues grooves that shook Jordan Hall to its foundations. They focused their ebullient set on original songs from their latest recording, Side Pony (Nonesuch Records), igniting the carouse of “Call Off The Dogs” with a brisk plunging bass solo by Kearney and nailing the blistering rock ’n’ roll of “Spectacular Failure,” with Calabrese pelting bass drum hits while Price ventured into her highest registers with effortless power.

Lake Street Dive can also drill to the heart of bluesy ballads and funky jazz grooves. They plumbed the depths of “Mistake” (another cut from Side Pony) with Olsen taking a trumpet solo full of evolving angles and detours. Another highlight was “Just Ask” (taken from their 2014 album, Bad Self Portraits [Signature Sounds], a concussive slow-burning number with Olsen howling on his electric guitar and Price leaning into every verse with dynamic ardor. This cut also highlighted the group’s sensational harmonies, their voices melding together in light, sly perfection.

Those same careening harmonies also propelled the frolic of “You Go Down Smooth,” with its backbone guitar, churning bass lines and Price’s quick vocal gallops up and down her fluid, expressive register.

After intermission, the NEC Jazz Orchestra and the NEC Philharmonia Strings joined with members of Lake Street Dive in a bracing exploration of jazz classics as well as Schaphorst arrangements of originals from Calabrese, Olsen and Kearney.

Jazz great Jimmy Giuffre taught at NEC for many years, and his “The Train And the River” was given raucous swing in the hands of the Jazz Orchestra, punctuated by the burbling heat of Hunter Smith’s tenor saxophone solo and Max Light’s filigree guitar. Price took the stage to inhabit beautifully a song that she sang many years ago as a student with Schaphorst, Billie Holiday/Arthur Herzog’s “God Bless The Child,” only this version was arranged by another jazz giant and past NEC faculty member, Jaki Byard.

Price laced this soulful creation with her indelible vocals, ending on a soft wave of vocal caresses. The strings of the Philharmonia also cast a velvety glow to Gunther Schuller’s arrangement of the classic “Angel Eyes,” with a swiveling trumpet solo by Olson and a ghostly vocal plunge by Price.

In contrast, Schaphorst’s arrangement of Calabrese’s “I Don’t Care About You” was built on pile-driving brass and bass lines with Price’s voice prowling around the corners of this giddy concoction. Kearney’s “Bad Self Portraits” (and its delectably rocking grooves) steamrolled this concert to its end, blistering on brass holds, bass rumbles, guitar urgency and the sparkling leaps of Price’s vocals (“Gone are the days of me being so reticent!”) rising in gleeful optimism and defiance. DB



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