Julia Jones on the journey that is Jazz Soc’s Highway 61
The UCLU Jazz Society never ceases to impress me. Whenever I see them perform – whether it’s a Tuesday night at Phineas or in collaboration with one of the Union’s many societies – I always walk away wishing I had even an ounce of the musicians’ talent. Highway 61, the group’s latest show, was no exception.
Highway 61 showcases the proliferation of jazz in Midwest America during the 1900s. Much like the highway from which it gets its name, the performance starts in New Orleans, continues through Mississippi and the Deep South, and finally ends in Chicago. The first half of the show held classics like Etta James’ At Last and The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun (based on life in New Orleans), while the second consisted of songs by Otis Redding, B.B. King, Johnny and June Cash, The Temptations, and Frank Sinatra (whose My Kind of Town is a love song to Chicago).
Suriyah Rashid gave part one a strong start with her rendition of Didn’t It Rain, which was followed by Louis Armstrong’s St. James Infirmary, sung by Sam Thomas. Five songs in came Summertime, which was particularly wonderful as each musician had a short solo within the song itself. The narrative that was told every few songs added nice theatrics and “plot positioning” (where along the highway we were) without being too much of an interruption to the music. The first half finished as well as it began thanks to Sarah Lewis’ and Arthur Scammell’s respective performances of Do Your Duty and House of the Rising Sun.
Miguel Rivera and his Fender guitar, whose first appearances were at the beginning of part two, gave Highway 61 a little extra pizzazz reminiscent of Carlos Santana. Don’t get me wrong: the first half was good – but Rivera, rocking out to Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness and B.B. King’s The Thrill is Gone, gave the show that little push it needed.
Also of note was Luke Purwar’s My Girl, in which his four fellow male vocalists acted as his backup singers. Aside from Miranda Evans and Arthur Scammell in Jackson, this was the only time a song was sung by more than one singer; again, it gave the performance – and audience – exactly what it needed. By the end of the fifteen piece set, every musician and vocalist had gotten at least one solo, if not more, to display their forte. Special kudos goes to director Heather Gray for complying the perfect playlist of both classic and lesser-known songs.
Unfortunately, and due to no fault of their own, many of the singers were drowned out by the instruments that accompanied them. Even sitting in the second row, I found it hard to hear the vocals over the roar of the saxophones, trumpet, drums, and whatever else was playing – a shame because the singers were all obviously very talented. This was due to a microphone technical difficulty, which wasn’t made clear to the audience until halfway through the second part.
The show was eventually paused to try to fix the problem, giving way to Highway 61’s best part: the musicians’ freestyle playing to keep the audience entertained. There is something to be said for performers who can make saving a show look easy and not at-all-stressful. Their ten-minute show inside the show exemplified not only actual, unrehearsed talent, but also genuine passion for their craft. At one point, a friend turned to me and said, “Look at how much fun they’re having.” Like all my other experiences with the Jazz Soc, I was left in awe.
All in all, Highway 61 was good. As is usually the case, when the performers enjoy what they’re doing, the audience does too – I found myself singing along to My Girl, and clapping with the rest of the crowd to I Just Want to Make Love to You. Yes okay, the theatre was a little small, the intermission a little long, and the mic failure a little annoying. But setbacks were turned into advantages with grace and expertise, and the music, above all, was performed excellently.
Don’t worry if you miss “Highway 61”. Do worry if you go your entire uni career without catching a Jazz Society performance. It would be a regrettable decision.
Photos: Danté Kim