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Jazz Artists In Evidence at National Flute Association Conference

The National Flute Association, founded in 1973, is the largest flute organization in the world. According to its website, (www.nfaonline.org): "It was founded to encourage a higher standard of artistic excellence for the flute, its performers, and its literature. It has more than 5,500 members from more than 50 countries, including leading soloists, orchestral players, college and university professors, adult amateurs, and students of all ages."

The NFA's activities reflect the interests of its members, of course, and these are formed by the curricula of the conservatories and universities that train the majority of flutists in this country. These tend to be somewhat conservative, and focused mainly on Western European Art Music. Jazz does have a presence, however, which was demonstrated at the organization's annual convention, August 9-12, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Billed under the title Viva La Flauta!, the four day meeting featured the usual packed schedule of concerts, recitals, lectures and workshops, all taking place around a main hall filled with displays of flutes, flute music, flute cases, and all manner of flute accessories. Following conference tradition, recitals, seminars and lectures in the recital rooms and auditoria were supplemented with flute choirs from all over the country performing in the main foyer. There was too much happening to take in everything, but what I did catch was of consistently high quality.

Flutists like to hunt in packs, and Bach, Schubert, Debussy, and a myriad of other composers can sound very pleasing performed by multi-flute ensembles. It can also be a lot of fun to play in these groups, and several participatory flute choir reading sessions were available for all members who brought a flute and a music stand--a cherished convention tradition matched only by the final concert which ends, traditionally, with everyone taking out their instrument and playing the music--J.S. Bach typically--taped to the seat in front of them--a 1,000 strong flute choir.

All well and good, and as a flutist I enjoy all of it, but my primary interest at these conferences is the jazz content, and this year's meeting had its share, most notably the unveiling of a flute choir devoted entirely to jazz: The NFA Jazz Flute Big Band. Organized and inspired by NFA Jazz Committee Chair Ali Ryerson (www.aliryerson.com), the group represented, as far as I am aware, the largest jazz flute ensemble ever assembled. There have been numerous jazz flute duos, trios, and quartets, "dueling flute" sessions, and so forth, but no-one had ever tried to pull together 22 flute players, plus rhythm section, into a coherent band. I wasn't sure how such a large group would cohere, but from the very first few measures it was clear this was going to work beautifully. Ryerson had taken pains to approach the most accomplished arrangers to create the charts for the group; Michael Abene, Mike Wofford, Bill Cunliffe, Steve Rudolph and Kris Keith, working with material by Clifford Brown, Wayne Shorter, Neal Hefti, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Oliver Nelson, Horace Silver and Dizzy Gillespie--the essence of the jazz cannon. None of the arrangers had ever written for a flute big band before--no one had--so there were no precedents for them to draw on, but they were all able to overcome the relative homogeneity of sound and create sufficient contrast between sections where needed, which was aided by having a full section of bass flutes as well as the concert and alto instruments. As for soloists, the project attracted some of the best in the business--Dr. Jill Allen, Jamie Baum, Holly Hofmann, Keith Underwood, young prodigy Jose Valentino Ruiz, and Ryerson herself. In fact, all the flutists got some solo space and performed admirably. Not to overlook Mark Levine--one of the most underrated pianists in jazz, who also contributed an arrangement of "Daahoud"--and the other members of the rhythm section: John Wiitala, bass and Akira Tana, drums.

Flutist Steve Kujala has worked with Chick Corea, Peter Sprague, and others. He was in the audience and had these comments: "I enjoyed very much the performance of the Ali Ryerson Flute big-band in Albuquerque last week. I thought the ensemble playing was tight, the rhythm section was swingin', the soloists were all hot, and the arrangements superb. As the creator of a "flute band" myself (Tutti Flutti) some 25 years ago, I can appreciate all of the color possibilities and choices of function, and I think in this pure jazz/big-band idiom you have all pulled it off smartly and with lots of style."

It is unlikely that the ensemble will be able to perform together or record anytime soon, but the NFA has decided to feature it biennially, and will hold auditions for the performance, the next one scheduled for 2009 in New York City, which will give younger players a chance to participate.

This was not the only jazz event, even if it was the most spectacular--and the best attended--on Saturday evening. The Friday evening cabaret performance featured Huascar Barradas from Venezuela with his own version of Latin jazz. Earlier, Chip Shelton had given a seminar on handling the lower flutes, Bradley Leighton had held an informal master class, and Steve Kujala did his Tutti Flutti thing ( www.tuttiflutti.com). Sunday saw a flurry of jazz activity, however. This writer presented a preliminary version of a documentary film on the history of jazz flute that will appear later this year, along with a book on the subject (www.fluteinjazz.com). This was followed by short recitals by both Ryerson and Hofmann working with the Levine/Wiitala/Tana rhythm section. Both flutists were in top form, Ryerson elegant and precise, Hofmann fiery, more bebop based. This was followed by a master class given by Hofmann, in which she showed a remarkable ability to transform the playing of the two volunteers with a few well chosen remarks. Whatever that skill is, I wish she would bottle it and send some my way!

As a member of the jazz committee, and a student of Hindustani flute performance, I have been working to introduce more diversity into the flute community, as well as into the college curriculum generally. This is not only to promote jazz and other genres but also to introduce more breadth into students� training, as this widens their professional prospects, and actually improves their playing across the board.

We are making some headway; I enjoyed this weekend, as I did the British Flute Society's conference last year, that featured Jamie Baum's performance and master class, as well as flutists from South India, and Venezuela. But hats off to Ali Ryerson and conference chair Nancy Andrew for their support of jazz in the world of flute performance.

The NFA Jazz Flute Big Band Ali Ryerson--flute, alto flute, leader; Ken Sherman, Dr. Jill Allen, Kris Keith, Holly Hofmann, Kevin Nathanson, Jos� Valentino Ruiz, John Barcellona, Richard Ford, Dave Anderson, Jamie Baum, Cindy Wagner Tag, Donna Sevcovic, Lisa Nichols, Matt Riley, Carlos Xavier, Henri Scott, Dr. Sa�s Kamalidiin, Howard E. Motteler, Keith Underwood, Bonnie Schmader, Jen Cole--flutes (piccolo, C flute, alto, bass); Dominique Gagne--flute and guest conductor; Mark Levine--piano; John Wiitala--bass; Akira Tana--drums.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ali Ryerson
  • Concert Date: August 9 - 12, 2007
  • Subtitle: Jazz Flute Big Band Debuts in Albuquerque
  • Venue: The Convention Center
  • City State Country: Albuquerque, New Mexico
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