If you're a regular reader of the Nightlife Showcase section, you know that North Central Pennsylvania has a dynamic music scene. Williamsport is home to many successful blues musicians, rock bands, bluegrass, folk and hip-hop acts.
Jazz, on the other hand, is a comparatively under-represented genre. Fortunately, a new group of jazz musicians has joined forces in order to make jazz a staple in Williamsport.
The Williamsport City Jazz Orchestra will make its debut performance at 7:30 p.m. March 2 at the Community Theatre League, 100 W. Third St.
Bill Ciabattari, an assistant professor of music at Lycoming College, is the Jazz Orchestra's spokesperson and facilitator, a title he prefers to "founder" or "director."
"We agreed that the group would be run as a co-op, so it's not any one person's band," Ciabattari said. "It's really collaborative."
Nevertheless, it was Ciabattari's efforts that brought the musicians that make up the WCJO together.
"This region has a lot of strong jazz talent and a lot of them are friends - I call them 'jazzers.' I got to thinking that a lot of these folks are taking gigs and playing separately but they're not playing regularly as a large group. So, I called the top 'jazzers' in the area and asked them to come together to form a jazz orchestra. I would consider my role in this as more of a facilitator than anything else," Ciabattari said.
The Williamsport City Jazz Orchestra aims to make jazz performances readily available to people in the area. Ciabattari said there are many jazz lovers in the region and that the arts community has been very receptive to his idea of forming a jazz orchestra.
"Everybody wants to support the arts around here," Ciabattari said. "Our goal is to keep the art form vibrant and healthy in this area. If we're waiting to get called for gigs, we're basically waiting to die. We don't want classical music to die, we don't want jazz music to die and we don't want the arts in general to die. There need to be advocates and that's what we are. We're advocates for the preservation of a vibrant jazz culture in this community."
Ciabattari completed his graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, a city which is home to the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. Ciabattari said living in Cleveland and witnessing its vibrant jazz scene inspired him to form his own jazz orchestra here in Williamsport. He also wanted the name "jazz orchestra" to be all-encompassing.
"By calling it a jazz orchestra, we're giving the group a bigger scope," Ciabattari said. "Much like a symphony orchestra has a repertoire from the early Baroque all the way up to music that was written yesterday, we don't want to be stuck in any one specific style."
Ciabattari said he hopes the Williamsport City Jazz Orchestra will act as an umbrella organization that is able to produce a variety of jazz performances, from full-scale Big Band concerts to more intimate jazz quartets.
"It's possible that we would do a concert in the future that would be based on one particular artist's or composer's music," Ciabattari said. "So we might do a Duke Ellington show or we might do a presentation of arrangements by Sammy Nestico, a very famous Big Band arranger. Alternatively, much like a symphony orchestra does chamber concerts, we could send out a quartet to do a Miles Davis set that would be more appropriate for an intimate setting like a club. And it would still be under the banner of the Williamsport City Jazz Orchestra. We want to be able to put on all kinds of performances. I think that's the way a jazz orchestra should work."
According to Ciabattari, the WCJO had its first rehearsal in June of 2011 and has spent much time since then trying to organize its debut concert.
"It took a long time to schedule our premiere because everybody in the group is so busy," Ciabattari said. "But this upcoming concert at the CTL will be our grand premiere. Nobody has heard us play as a group yet, so we're excited. We hope that his premiere performance will lead to many, many more."
Those attending the WCJO's debut at the CTL March 2 can expect to hear the group's unique interpretations of familiar jazz standards.
"We're playing standard jazz repertoire - Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and songs that everybody should be able to recognize - in a variety of treatments," Ciabattari said. "Some of them will be contemporary takes on old tunes and some will be direct transcriptions from Basie or Ellington. The concert features a lot of the orchestra members playing solos, so not only will you hear these classic tunes, you'll also hear the talent of the musicians in the group."
As for the atmosphere of the performance, concertgoers will be in for a rare treat: the chance to see a jazz orchestra in an up-close and personal setting.
"The CTL is a unique venue," he said. "The set-up will not be the way you're used to seeing a Big Band, which is on stage in three rows, facing the audience. We're going to have a more intimate atmosphere where the group is in the center and the audience is all around. You should be able to see the sweat pouring off our faces. You'll hear us taking our breaths, for goodness' sake. It should be a really vibrant experience and we're hoping that the audience gets energized. That's what you always want to happen at a concert: the audience is energized, the performers are energized and pretty soon the dialogue of energies going back and forth between the audience and musicians transports you to another place."
Ciabattari has placed greater emphasis on audience enjoyment after seeing too many performances where the focus was on the conductor or the performers.
"I've grown to resent the concert experience that is purely about the conductor," Ciabattari said. "That's the worst. The second worst is when it's purely about the group. I think the best concert experience is the one that's about the audience because when it's successful, the conductor is pleased, the musicians are pleased and the audience is pleased. That's what we're after. This orchestra is supposed to put a charge in the audience and make them feel that the choice they made to witness this music making was the best choice they could have possibly made for their time."
If that isn't incentive enough to see the WCJO's debut concert, I don't know what is.