UAA jazz ensemble swings into a new semester

UAA has been home to a jazz ensemble for over 25 years, and has seen multiple changes in leadership over that course of time.

The ensemble began under the direction of Karen Strid-Chadwick, who brought her piano prowess and jazz chops to the budding music program.

When Strid-Chadwick retired, John Sterling, an experienced jazz musician and music program adjunct at UAA, took on the jazz ensemble for the fall semester of 2018.

Due to budget concerns, the leadership of the jazz ensemble then fell to Armin Abdihodzic, a competitive classical guitarist and full-time professor in UAA’s music program, after the 2019 spring semester.

For some pieces, Abdihodzic plays the bass guitar while leading the ensemble. Photo by Anna Berry.

“How [Abdihodzic] rehearses things is kind of different… he knows how to break it down and take it slow… assessing the problem and being able to tell us how to fix it and then we’re able to fix it,” Zeke Thompson, a percussionist in his sophomore year in the UAA music program, said.

Thompson attributed this skill to Abdihodzic’s extra experience in the classical field.

Abdihodzic’s rehearsal process occurs twice weekly in the UAA Recital Hall. The entire ensemble, made up of a handful of instrumentalists and a few vocalists who are all enrolled in the jazz ensemble class, work on group pieces, sometimes splitting off into smaller groups to practice scaled-down pieces in other classrooms.

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Abdihodzic pointed out that the pieces he chooses for the ensemble depend on the class enrollment. In this way, a jazz ensemble is different from a single-instrument group, such as a guitar ensemble.

“Whether you are dealing with three guitars or 10 guitars, everyone’s dealing with the same instrument [in a single-instrument group], whereas with a jazz ensemble, the challenge is you’ve got to have a drummer and a rhythm section, so hopefully enough students enroll,” Abdihodzic said.

Dealing with a group of musicians that varies depending on the semester means that a lot of thought goes into choosing pieces, he says.

“[It’s a challenge to] find appropriate repertoire and make sure that everyone has a role in it and nobody feels left out,” Abdihodzic said.

Christobalina Sosa, a vocalist in her junior year in the UAA music program, said the biggest challenge for her in the jazz ensemble class will be learning scat singing, a common type of vocal improvisation in jazz repertoire. However, she also enjoys having the ability to choose what she performs in the ensemble.

“It’s nice to have the freedom of doing repertoire I want to do and having the opportunity to play with instruments that aren’t just a piano,” Sosa said.

Improvisation like this is one difference between jazz and classical music.

“We’re training [classical musicians] to strictly play these notes, play this rhythm… don’t change anything, follow what’s on the page,” Abdihodzic said. “A big part of jazz style and culture is nourishing your own voice… you can voice a chord in any way you want as long as you get that chord.”

Thompson also contrasted jazz music with typical classical music.

“For my [jazz] sheet [music], basically what I have in front of me is a bunch of slashes and measures and it says the genre and where certain instruments play and I play along with [them],” Thompson said. “If I make a mistake, it’s alright, as long as I don’t show it. There’s a lot of comfort in that.”

Abdihodzic and his jazz ensemble have two upcoming performances during the fall semester. The ensemble’s lineup for these performances includes jazz standards by Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock.

“[The class will be performing] everything from blues to bossa nova tunes, ballads and some more adventurous jazz,” Abdihodzic said.

The performances will take place on Oct. 30 and Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the UAA Recital Hall. Admission is free.