Color, Dissonance, Spontaneity: Improvising in Academy Jazz Bands Concert

When a member of the Phillips Academy Jazz Band fell unexpectedly sick, alto saxophonist Ethan Liu ’26 stepped up to play the missing part at the Academy Jazz Bands concert last Friday. Peter Cirelli, Instructor in Music and the concert’s conductor, commented on the performance and on Liu’s quick turnaround.

“I really especially was appreciative of how Ethan Liu played, because he had to…play these parts that he’s never played before. He was playing similar parts in the part beside him, but he was playing one note lower in the harmony through all of our rehearsals. Today, he just sight read in the concert,” said Cirelli.

From cool blues to funk music, the Phillips Academy Jazz Band performed alongside smaller ensembles in Cochran Chapel. Anny Wang ’26, a pianist for the ensemble “Goose and Moose,” reflected on the freeing and interactive nature of jazz compared to other musical genres.

“I think jazz is my favorite genre of them all because of how free and chill it is. People can play whatever they feel like, and it would sound really nice. The audience would groove with the band instead of just listening,” said Wang.

Synthesizing knowledge from independent study, private instrument lessons, and AP Music Theory courses, students delivered lively solos at Friday’s concert. Cirelli discussed the interactive nature of jazz music, full of subtle patterns for musicians to discover.

“There’s a myth about improvisation that people are just making things up. They are, but it’s more like being a composer, because you need to understand harmony and rhythm and understand what’s in a chord and scale, and make use of that as you go along and the music is progressing through time,” said Cirelli.

Jazz music often disregards traditional composition rules, playing around with dissonance and polyrhythms. “Goose and Moose” guitarist Evelyn Darling ’23 discussed the balance between conventional harmonies and colorful dissonance during the concert.

“Color is kind of a way to describe a note’s dissonance. So notes that are really in key are going to fit, but as you sprinkle in more dissonance and use those patterns of resolution and tension, those will bring more texture to the song…it feels like we are all controlling a beast together by staying in tune and staying in focus. You’re sort of holding the reins on that and dragging it through the song,” said Darling.

Cirelli also emphasized the dynamic nature of jazz music. Performers should not just play what is on the page, but rather strive to create unique interpretations of the music provided, said Cirelli.

“I want [the students] to learn what the original intent of the composer is, but it’s going to be their interpretation of that music. I don’t want them to sound just like a recording, I want them to sound like them,” said Cirelli.