I spent a fair amount of time at the 12th Annual UCSD Jazz Camp, taking in lectures by trombonist Michael Dessen and trumpeter Hugh Ragin on June 24-25 and culminating my experience with an entire day on June 26: Catching Pulitzer-prize nominee Anthony Davis’s presentation on jazz and the Civil Rights movement, a guitar masterclass by Peter Sprague, and an arranging/composition class by Ragin -- all leading up to an amazing faculty concert by four master improvising artists.
The Jazz Camp offers a week of immersive training from a very diverse faculty of world-class players including the aforementioned plus saxophonists Charles McPherson, Bob Shepard, and David Borgo; flutist Holly Hofmann; pianists Benny Green and Mike Wofford; guitarist Larry Koonse; bassists Mark Dresser and Rob Thorsen, and drummers Willie Jones III, and Marvin Smith.
What I most admire about program founder Daniel Atkinson’s aesthetic is that he has balanced his teaching staff with icons from both the jazz mainstream (which is what you’d expect) and the free-improvising community (which doesn’t happen often elsewhere). The net result is that the students (minimum age is 14, and there’s no maximum age) are exposed to the entire continuum of the music taught by cats who’ve lived the life and produced the work. I wouldn’t be surprised if the faculty, in toto, appears on more than a thousand recordings.
The June 26 private, faculty concert was comprised of a virtual dream team of improvisers. Anthony Davis, on piano has been constant force in the world of jazz, opera, and classical music for more than 30 years. Hugh Ragin on trumpet is a veteran of forward-leaning ensembles led by Anthony Braxton, David Murray, and Roscoe Mitchell. Mark Dresser has been on the cutting edge of contrabass exploration since the 1970’s, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith’s curricula vitae includes associations with Dave Holland, Branford Marsalis, Steve Coleman, and Sting.
Ragin began the evening a cappella, with whispered, sweet tones, quicksilver runs and growling, jumbled discourse. Dresser picked up the baton with a soliloquy of hammered bi-tones, dizzying glissandi and groaning arco; Smith continued with a quiet solo consisting entirely of hand drumming, and Davis followed with ruminative harmonies and thunderstorm clusters. Somehow, these four individual statements coalesced into a swinging romp on Duke Ellington’s “Ad Lib on Nippon,” yielding four more brilliant solos in group context.
Davis’s “The After” was a contemplative ballad that reminded me of “Circle,” from the legendary Miles Davis record "Miles Smiles," and Dresser’s “For Bradford” exploded with Ragin’s sputtering trumpet growling like a hungry lion; Davis’s manic fingers seemed to chase each other along the keyboard and Smith kept the whole thing burning with shimmering cymbals and rimshot arabesques. Without pause, the group segued effortlessly into Ragin’s “Silver Cornet News,” an ebullient swinger fueled by Davis’s joyful clanging, Smith’s relentless fusillades, and a drop-dead Dresser moment loaded with blues and surprise.
It’s not hard to imagine that at least some of the students in the audience came away with a sense of awe in the potential of music that will remain burned in their brains. Count me in.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.