The polar vortex engulfing Tennessee might have cancelled classes, but it was hardly effective in negating the intensity of
On Tuesday, at 8 PM, Dafnis Prieto and the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra performed to a lively crowd in the Bijou theatre.
Prieto, a Cuban-American drummer and big band composer, brought his distinctive flavor of jazz to the Bijou as part of KJO’s 2018-2019 season. The concert, titled “Cubano Nouveau”, is the fourth in line.
Prieto follows jazz vocalist Catherine Russell and pianist Cyrus Chestnut as the orchestra’s guest artist.
The Bijou’s doors opened well before eight, ushering shivering guests into the warm, golden light of the theater. As seats filled, so did the noise level of the crowd.
Soon, out of the excited babble of the audience drifted the texture of a more spontaneous conversation: the Knoxville Jazz
Orchestra, warming their chops. Piano riffs, asides from trumpets, saxophones, sharp remarks from flutes—all of these filtered through the theater.
Eventually, the house lights fell, followed swiftly by the blue glow of smartphones. With the curtain still down, Vance Thompson took the stage.
A trumpet player, arranger, composer, and founder of the KJO, Thompson introduced Prieto and took the time to thank some of the sponsors of the orchestra.
Thompson announced that, due to the inclement weather, the orchestra and Prieto would be performing a single 75-minute set, and there would be no intermission. He jokingly urged audience members to take a final trip to the bathroom and the bar.
After Thompson took his leave, the curtain lifted, accompanied by a crescendo into the rambunctious, expansive sound of the music of Dafnis Prieto. Prieto himself was centered in the ensemble; to his left, the brass and woodwinds sat on raised tiers. To his right, the grand piano and bass formed the rhythm section.
In his music, Prieto pulls no punches—his multi-layered, complex melodies weave in and out of driving percussion. Phrases end abruptly, start again, repeat and reinvent themselves continually. ,
Prieto’s pieces created numerous opportunities for soloists—whenever a musician would stand, the bright white spotlight would fall on them, drawing the audience’s eyes and their ears.
The soloist’s performance would be followed by cheers and clapping from the audience, sounds which filled their own distinct niche in the sonic ecology of the night.
“All the soloists were killer,” said Bernell Jones, a junior majoring in saxophone performance.
“They can really play in the style. They all have chops and no matter what feel you give them, they can play over all of it,” Jones said.
Jones himself had the opportunity to perform with the KJO during their “Nursery Rhymes Reimagined” concert, in which the orchestra delivered jazz-ified renditions of classic melodies.
Prieto left plenty of room for virtuosity on his own part—as a transition between two tunes, Prieto took an extended, unaccompanied drum solo, expressing melody as well as time through passages at times frenetic and other times utterly grooving.
“He plays like he has two brains,” Jones noted.
Indeed, throughout the entire concert, Prieto leaves his footprint on his music. His accompaniment of the wind band is
courteous when it needs to be, and aggressively bombastic where the music calls for it.
In between pieces, Prieto spoke briefly on the music, all of which was excerpted from his latest record “Back to the Sunset”. He explained that some pieces were dedicated to specific people, such as his mother, Rosa, or to a former colleague and composer, Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill.
Jeff Ross, a Knoxville resident, has been to every concert in the KJO’s 2018-19 series.
“Vance (Thompson) brings in really great performers. Especially ones that are right for the big band, which is really wonderful…To have this big powerful band…is really exciting, and we’re proud to have a really great band in Knoxville,” Ross said.
Ross recalls that he’s been attending KJO concerts for the past five or six years, but wasn’t familiar with the work of Prieto.
“That’s what’s so great about KJO,” Ross said. “They’ll bring people that you haven’t really heard of, that aren’t playing (in Knoxville) on their own.”
“I really credit the jazz orchestra for introducing Knoxville to a lot of great musicians that we probably wouldn’t get otherwise.”
Prieto began the final set of the night with a pair of claves, clicking them against each other in what he explained was a rumba pattern, a rhythm that had permeated his experience of music as a child in Cuba.
Through the explosive closer that followed, the rumba rhythm could still be heard, the simple beat guiding a universe of sound.