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Sept. 23, 2010 Volume 32, No. 5

Jazz students give MU a case of Vertigo

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New recording is first for jazz studies program

Like many musicians, Arthur White is a bit of a showman. When the debut recording by the University of Missouri’s Concert Jazz Band was released last week, he made the most of his announcement to the ensemble’s members. Surrounded by about 20 musicians at the start of a rehearsal in Loeb Hall, White, the director of the university’s jazz studies program, thrust a copy of the CD in the air and shouted, “It’s here!”

The release of Vertigo: The Music of Mike Mainieri is indeed a seminal moment for jazz at the MU School of Music. For White, it’s just the beginning — he’s already planning a second recording next spring of the band performing original faculty and student compositions.

“I don’t like to think small,” he says. “Give me a forum to put out a CD, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Hopefully, it will become an annual project.”

Vertigo was conceived last November, when vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, founder of the influential jazz/fusion band Steps Ahead, visited MU as an artist-in-residence. Mainieri has hundreds of recordings to his credit, including collaborations with Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt and Dire Straits. Nominated for several Grammy Awards as a performer and producer, he had never recorded an album of his compositions in a traditional big-band setting.

White jumped at the chance to get Mainieri in a studio with the flagship ensemble of the jazz studies program, the Concert Jazz Band. He spent about 120 hours arranging six of the nine Mainieri compositions on Vertigo for a big band before the project was recorded in May at the Mansion, a studio at the Columbia home of Mizzou alum Bruce Barkelew. 

White, a saxophonist, composer and arranger who has worked with dozens of jazz artists, including Russell Malone, Bobby Watson and Dewey Redman, has been at MU for just over a year. He came from Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, where he recorded five well-received CDs with the NSU Jazz Ensemble. 

Robert Shay, director of the School of Music, says Vertigo is testament to the energy and enthusiasm White has brought to jazz studies at MU. “In a very short time, Dr. White has done a terrific job of establishing new standards for our jazz students,” Shay says. “We expect that this disc will enhance the visibility of the high quality jazz program we run.”

Phylshawn Johnson, a senior percussionist with the Concert Jazz Band, has played with numerous Columbia bands, including The Doxies, Mr. History and the Jon Hockenbury Quartet. A seasoned performer who has done “quite a few recording sessions,” Johnson credits White with being a “down-to-earth educator with a lot of vision and drive.” Vertigo, she says, captures an important moment in the history of MU’s jazz studies program. “At a concert, as soon as the music stops, the musical experience is over,” she says. “This recording will be part of the school forever and can be listened to again and again.”

White will lead MU’s Concert and Studio Jazz bands at a CD release celebration tonight at
8 p.m. at the Missouri Theatre. The new release will be on sale at the show and all proceeds will benefit jazz studies at MU. 

White hopes Vertigo, as well as future projects, will raise the profile of MU’s jazz program, while giving his students a valuable learning experience. In his view, few things can make a musician — especially a jazz musician — better than taking part in a studio recording.

“There’s no better way to create an actual professional experience than by making them participate in one,” he says. “Recording credits are certainly great to have, and if we can create as many opportunities for those as possible, I think it’s my job to do that.”