East Bay grads on Japan concert tour
By Lou Fancher
Like oracles of hope, four teens are headed to Japan. Although none of them speak Japanese or have extensive backgrounds in Asia, they predict they'll have no trouble communicating their harmonious messages.
The East Bay foursome of 2016 graduates are Matt Richards, 18, of Las Lomas High School; Benjamin Ring, 18, of Piedmont High; and Max Schwartz, 18, along with senior Jasim Perales, 17, of Berkeley High, members of the Monterey Jazz Festival's 2016 Next Generation Jazz Orchestra.
They were selected along with 17 of their peers to represent the country's top high school jazz talent. The most precious items in their luggage during the tour and the September festival performances close to home are their translators: a saxophone, drum set, bass and trombone, respectively.
The hope in their hearts, they take as carry on.
Richards' travels in Spain have made him aware that audiences in countries other than America appreciate jazz tremendously.
"They're into it. They're happy. I pick one or two people in the audience and lock in: the amazement in their eyes is cool."
Richards says some people in America think that his course of study for the fall -- jazz and music production at USC -- is fluff.
"In other areas of the world, they see young talent and magnify it. They value artistic pursuance, things that might not get you a paycheck. I'm hoping to bring that energy back with me."
Ring says he's spoiled by growing up in the Bay Area, a harbor of jazz appreciation in a country otherwise only sporadically interested in the genre.
Advertisement"It was huge in the '20s, but I see statistics in record and ticket sales that show jazz is a small amount of the industry now. Musicians who've been in clubs for 30 years might have eight or 10 people at a gig. But I've been in programs where we receive big, big audiences."
It's likely that two "big, big" experiences will happen this fall, when the Next Gen orchestra will perform Sept. 15, at the 10th Jazz Legends Gala honoring Quincy Jones in Pebble Beach, and on the festival's Jimmy Lyons main stage Sept. 18, with artist-in-residence Terri Lyne Carrington.
Ring says that "throwing a bunch of students together" and expecting them to "jell," is standard operation for jazz musicians. Having studied and loved the same music, he says, "We're really all coming from the same place."
Extending that idea to people he may encounter in Japan with whom he doesn't share a language, he predicts music will create chemistry.
"For everyone, music is abstract: a piece of paper with notes on it. You have to interpret it, just like you do a math equation. I love rhythm, which is math, but the heart comes from the emotional side."
Schwartz performs regularly with folk musician and Berkeley High graduate Laurie Lewis and her band. He plans a gap year devoted to music and travel before joining the Stamps Jazz Quintet at University of Miami Frost School of Music.
"I'm adding to my multicultural experiences. Touring in Cuba, Europe and Mexico, you have a special bond. When you jam, you communicate without language."
Even so, he's practicing useful Japanese phrases and will apply the same attitude to travel as he does to music.
"Jazz is communication. Play in an inviting way, do a service, be enjoyable, keep your ears open, don't lose the spontaneity."
Perales is the only one of the four musicians who is marking his second year in the orchestra. His hope is to match the surreal; the moment in 2015 when he realized he was sharing the stage in front of thousands of people with Wynton Marsalis and other jazz heroes.
"That was the ultimate," he remembers.
Anticipating enthusiastic, educated audiences in Japan, he says that people in America have forgotten how jazz brought light and "spoke hope" to the 1920s and 1930s era of depression, pain, war and suffering.
One piece on this year's program, Pat Metheny's "Minuano," he says doesn't feature his instrument, but is his favorite.
"It flows, with a driving meter that doesn't stop, but isn't forceful. The melody is forever in my head. It's like hope."