Thornton Jazz Night gets crowd dancing

Thornton musicians perform jazz classics, student compositions and the sounds of Cuba.


Aarón Serfaty, the director of the Afro-Latin American Jazz Ensemble, urged the crowd to clap and dance to their music — an instruction they were happy to follow. (Melissa Grimaldo / Daily Trojan)

It’s always a good sign when the whole room starts dancing, and that’s exactly what happened Monday night at Carson Soundstage for Jazz Night featuring the Afro-Latin American Jazz Ensemble.

One of several Monday jazz evenings slated by Thornton, the three-hour event consisted of three sets: two jazz ensembles and ALAJE. Each set lasted roughly 50 minutes, with 10-minute intervals in between.

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The first two groups were ensembles of students studying under vocal jazz adjunct instructor Kathleen Grace. 

The first performance of the night featured images projected onto a screen above the stage.

The standout piece in this set was “Achiles.” Written by Jade Bacon, a junior majoring in jazz studies, the song was inspired by Madeline Miller’s novel “The Song of Achilles.” As the lights dimmed onstage and the musicians quieted, the steady pulsation of the bass guitar faintly grew out of the silence.

As the marchlike beat continued, the quote, “Name one hero who was happy,” was illuminated on screen against a pure white background. 

The bass continued its three-noted melody in perfect time, as the singers alternatively refrained, “I’ll wait for you,” to one another. The poignancy of the melody was enhanced by the free-flowing saxophone, alternately playing solo parts and accompanying the singers. 

A common theme throughout the entire night was the mastery of vocals and layering of sounds.

In “Achiles,” the arrangement of the piece had a balance of spontaneity and structure. The song felt like a march with the beat held by the guitar and drums, but the saxophone, piano and vocalists added the emotional elasticity.

Another example of brilliant arrangement skills was in the second set with the performance of “Spain” by Chick Corea. Arranged by Phia Papouchado — a freshman majoring in jazz studies — and sung by Leo Mermelstein — a sophomore majoring in jazz studies as well as cognitive science — the jazz classic beautifully highlighted the voice while also boasting a complex melodic arrangement for the drums and saxophone. 

Apart from the technical side of the music, one of the most interesting aspects of the performance was the variety in style. 

In the first and second sets, each ensemble performed their own songs as well as covers, such as “Gold Dust Woman” by Fleetwood Mac and “Spain.” Each musician’s individual artistry shone through the music, yet despite this individuality, each song conveyed a message about love and life, expressed through the joy of each performance. 

The happiness of the performers was palpable, as the singers and instrumentalists would often look at each other, beaming midsong throughout all three sets. 

This pure happiness cannot be manufactured. Part of the magic of live performance is the modeling between humanity and the transcendental quality of music. When the two are in harmony, the performers, listeners and environment feel transformed into another world. Then, the joyous quality of music is born. 

In the third set, which featured ALAJE, this transportive element really came to fruition. 

ALAJE was the largest of the three ensembles, comprising four vocalists, a pianist, a saxophone section, horn section, drums and bass. Along with the performers, ALAJE director Aarón Serfaty also took the stage, directing the ensemble and providing the beat for the songs.

Midway through their five-song setlist, Serfaty addressed the audience, playfully raising his hands in the air, and calling everyone to start clapping and dancing to the music. As the entire ensemble bounced to the beat, individuals in the audience slowly started rising and moved to the back corner of the room to dance. 

By the final song, more than half of the audience was out of its seats in newly formed groups, attempting a version of a two-step dance which very quickly morphed into a conga line. As the people snaked their way across the perimeter of the room, Serfaty watched from the stage with a smile plastered across his face. The horns began their rigorous solo portion, and couples broke off from the line and danced together in the middle of the room.

The room felt like one could have been dancing in Cuba rather than Carson Soundstage. There were no cares, no reservations and no plans. The audience was free to exist in that moment, and that was the real beauty of the performance. 

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