Thunder Big Band plays with the big boys

March 13, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

Review by Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau

A campus Starbucks full of bobbing heads and tapping toes testified Wednesday night to the fact that Grand Canyon University now has a jazz scene.

Don’t believe it? Then you must not have heard the Thunder Big Band, barely a year old, go toe-to-toe with the much more experienced Red Mountain Big Band — and do a nice job of holding its own. The inaugural “Java and Jazz” program caused students and jazzers alike to pack the second floor of the Student Union, where the drinks were hot but the music was hotter (and free).

The 18-piece Thunder Big Band, under the direction of Paul Koch, opened the evening with a sizzling, five-song set that hit a nice groove immediately on Miles Davis’ “Four.” Eddie Harris’ funky “Freedom Jazz Dance” followed, featuring a killer bass guitar line by Luis Morales, and Tim Haas’ solo work on Artie Shaw’s “Concerto for Clarinet” took the instrument to impressive heights. Haas is an instructor in GCU’s music program.

Vocal student Kaylee Atkisson supplied an appropriately sultry rendition of the George Gershwin classic “Summertime,” and the set wrapped with a swinging version of “Moanin’” by Charles Mingus.

Bolstered by a higher percentage of music majors this year, the band is audibly tighter and was up for the challenge of opening for the Red Mountain ensemble, which has some pros in its lineup. The abundance of GCU talent includes alto saxophonist Mitch Tingey, trombonist Travis Larson, trumpeter Josh Salgado, guitarist Drew Murphy and pianist Kelsey McKee. They’re very good — and getting better all the time.

The visitors’ 17-piece band is directed by Dave Bacon, who teaches trumpet at GCU, and includes trombonist Frank Dubuy, who also teaches at the University. It takes its name from the Red Mountain campus of Mesa Community College — its home base — and the abundance of gray hairs provided a clue to its musical seasoning.

“They’re the heavy hitters tonight,” Koch said by way of introduction, and he wasn’t wrong. The highlight of a strong, six-song set was the standard “BlackBird,” which featured no fewer than eight soloists, showing off the improvisational genius of jazz as nothing else did. Red Mountain’s rhythm section of bassist Felix Sainz, drummer Steve Fitch and pianist Dave Henning was untouchable, and the audience’s standing ovation at the end was richly deserved.

The next performance of the Thunder Big Band will be on Tuesday, April 8, at nearby First Southern Baptist Church, in a year-end concert of several GCU bands.

Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].

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