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Jazz composer’s eclectic People Music gets U.S. premiere at USC

Bob Mintzer’s three-movement piece written for the Vienna Philharmonic features solos for the violin, clarinet and sax

Bob Mintzer performing
Bob Mintzer, chair of the Jazz Studies program, performs with the USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra last year. (Photo/Dario Griffin)

Jazz Studies chair Bob Mintzer composed People Music for the esteemed Vienna Philharmonic, but on Monday he’ll present its U.S. premiere with a decidedly different sort of ensemble: the USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra.

Originally commissioned by the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the festival wing of the famed Austrian orchestra, the classical-hued jazz work premiered to European audiences in 2013. Featuring three soloists — violin, clarinet and tenor saxophone — the three-movement, genre-defying work celebrates collaboration across musical lines.

“Just the experience of writing for people, playing with people, playing for people,” said Mintzer, who holds the Bowen H. “Buzz” and Barbara M. McCoy Chair in Jazz at the USC Thornton School of Music. “It’s the social activity of bringing people together to play and collaborate.”

When the time came to give the work to a new band and a new audience, Mintzer brought it home to a group that he knew would have no difficulty crossing the musical boundaries required — the TJO.

“The level of musical skill at Thornton is exceptionally high and the students are very adaptable,” Mintzer said. “We preach and teach that the students should be able to cross over for the simple reason that it expands your working and playing world dramatically.”

Classical and yet contemporary

Presented by TJO, People Music brings together students from USC Thornton’s Classical and Contemporary Music divisions. The two disciplines may not initially seem to speak the same language, but through his three-movement composition, Mintzer expects the musicians to find plenty of common ground.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to have the classical students join the jazz students,” Mintzer said. “That’s something we’re constantly on the lookout for. I have very few boundaries in terms of genre and style. Everything is fair game to me. I enjoy mixing and matching styles and sounds and shapes. It’s a big part of what I do.”

A saxophonist, composer and arranger whose career spans five decades, Mintzer has fronted big bands and played with multiple classical orchestras, from the New York Philharmonic to the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

His desire to branch out and mix things up musically began after Mintzer left college, a time during which he said “my phone never stopped ringing.”

“I played in a Latin band, I played with jazz ensembles and big bands. I played on punk rock records and pop records. I played with Buddy Rich and in jazz groups and I eventually started my own groups,” Mintzer said. “It was that diversity that allowed me to stay busy and grow as an artist, but also to develop a personal style that was well-informed by a lot of different influences.”

The work suits USC students

Mintzer sees a similar eclecticism in many of the students at USC Thornton and a genre-spanning work like People Music suits them.

The piece’s first movement features violin, the second features clarinet and the saxophonist Mintzer performs in the third movement before joining the other soloists for a rousing finish.

Like Mintzer, the other two soloists are accomplished musicians who transcend genres. Violinist Robert Anderson teaches in USC’s Popular Music Program and is the co-founder and music director of String Project Los Angeles. Clarinetist Phil O’Conner shuttles between jazz, classical music and musical theater while also serving on the faculty at CalArts.

Henry Solomon performing

Saxophonist Henry Solomon takes a solo at a USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra performance in October. (Photo/Dario Griffin)

The musicians of the TJO are seasoned in their own right. Drummer Kevin van den Elzen, a master’s student in Jazz Studies, traveled to Europe with the Bill Holman Street Band, and saxophonist Henry Solomon has worked with Bill Cunliffe. Solomon, an undergraduate, was a member of the 2013 Grammy Jazz Ensemble and cut an album at Capitol Studios before turning 18.

Mintzer views performance projects like this one as essential learning experiences.

“I’d love to see Thornton come together as a school in the name of education,” he said. “Artistic collaborations that span genres provide students with broad experiences so that when they walk out the door, they can function in a variety of settings and shine.”

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