by Mark McGowan
Rodrigo Villanueva knew what it would take to win the prestigious jazz festival at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire: amazing soloists.
The director of NIU’s Jazz Lab Band had guided his group to a second-place finish at Eau Claire in 2006 and, as a frequent judge himself at jazz competitions, began to plot a way to the top.
“I really wanted to win two years ago. We were so close. The students were really disappointed; they had played so well,” said Villanueva, an assistant professor of jazz studies. “I had in my mind that we could get the first place if I just tweaked a couple things, so I picked the best horses for the improvisation. My soloists were the best of the band: I had eight students soloing on the three tunes, and they all got outstanding soloist recognitions.”
Sure enough, Villanueva’s intuition was on the mark.
NIU’s Jazz Lab Band captured the top prize at the 41st Eau Claire competition, held the weekend of March 28. Overall scores from the three judges were 98, 96 and 95, and the NIU band earned a 96 for sight-reading.
Competitors among the 11 other collegiate bands included the University of Minnesota, Minnesota State University, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Guest artists at the festival, sponsored by the International Association of Jazz Educators, were saxophonist Benny Golson and drummer Dave Weckl.
“We were very thrilled to win. This is probably the most important festival in Wisconsin,” said Villanueva, who lives in the Dairy State city of Janesville. “I must be honest. Eau Claire’s jazz program is very strong – there are five big bands at that school, the strongest in Wisconsin – and the NIU Jazz Lab Band sounded better. We have a better rhythm section and better soloists.”
Villanueva can admit now that he took a risk in choosing his soloists.
Part of the score that judges assign comes from how good the rest of the ensemble sounds while playing behind the soloists, he said.
“You can have a very good interpretation of the theme in a chart, but when you go to the solo section, it’s weak,” he said. “I was concerned about putting the best of the band on the solos, but it turned out really well.”
Soloists were Nate Baker (guitar), Mike Bjella (sax), Quentin Coaxum (trumpet), Katherina Illescas (sax), Ryan Nyther (trumpet), Dan Pratt (drums), Micah Shaw-Rutschman (vibes) and Celia Whiren (sax).
Other lab band members are saxophonists Brett Hedrick, Marybeth Kurnat and Natalie Scharf; trumpeters Jason Fritcher and Ryan Jordan; trombonists Henry Chong, Sean DelGrosso, Andrew Hofer and Ron Jacoby; pianist Dan Houglum; and bassist James Miller.
Sight-reading also proved easy for the group.
After performing their three prepared tunes and working with the judges, each band is given a recently published piece of music and just a few scant minutes in a separate room to rehearse.
The chart from two years ago was musically complicated, Villanueva said, and called for some instruments the band had not brought.
“When I prepared the group this year, I had them bring all the extras – clarinets, flutes, soprano saxophones,” said Villanueva, who came to the NIU School of Music in 2004. “And the chart this year was not hard as we had prepared for, so that helped. We sight-read stuff all the time that is a lot more difficult.”
The Jazz Lab Band is one several NIU’s jazz groups, which also include the All University Jazz Band and the Liberace Jazztet.
Annual fall auditions place the cream-of-the-crop musicians into the legendary and world-renowned NIU Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Ron Carter. Many of the players in the Jazz Lab Band are “almost there,” Villanueva said. Some, including lead trombonist Jacoby, already perform with both bands.
“We’re a trampoline for some kids,” Villanueva said. “My lead alto, Mike Bjella, is as good as any of the kids in the Jazz Ensemble. My solo trumpet, Quentin Coaxum, he’s as good as any of the other guys in the Jazz Ensemble. He’s been playing for Ron this semester.”
Villanueva hopes someday to take the Jazz Lab Band on a tour of his native Mexico or to Peru, site of the acclaimed Festival Jazz en Peru, where the Jazz Ensemble and the Liberace Jazztet played a few years ago.
He’s also applying to IAJE on behalf of the Jazz Lab Band for a slot on the performing schedule at the organization’s annual conference in 2009 or 2010.
There is confidence in his voice for both projects, and the victory in Eau Claire makes it hard to doubt his intuition.
“I am a drum set player, and I’m really hard on my drummers … and the drummer and the lead trumpet players define the level of the band,” Villanueva said. “This band sounds very strong.”