For the third year in a row, the Newport Jazz Festival will include a performance by the University of Rhode Island’s 17-member Big Band. And 11 of those musicians will also be featured in the horn section of festival headliner Jamie Cullum’s band.
“The festival could have chosen any band they wanted, and they chose us,” said Adjunct Professor Jared Sims, who teaches saxophone at URI and leads the big band. “That says to me that they know our students are playing at a high level.”
The big band will perform a 45-minute set on Friday, July 31, at Fort Adams.
“We’re trying to come up with the most high-energy, entertaining set of music we can, without really straying far from the roots of jazz,” Sims said. “It will be fun and artistic at the same time.”
Pianist James Himmelman can’t believe that after just two years as a student at URI, he will be performing at one of the most prestigious jazz venues in the world.
“The thing I’m looking forward to most is sharing the experience with the band,” said Himmelman, a jazz performance and composition major from Manorville, N.Y. “None of us would be here without the others, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Over the course of the school year we’ve gotten better as musicians, tighter as a group, and closer as friends.”
As URI vocalist Jack Thomas prepares to take the stage at Newport with the band, the business major and vocal performance minor is thinking about the long list of prominent singers who performed there before him, from Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra to Tony Bennett and Etta James. He calls the opportunity to perform at the Newport festival “monumental.”
“I can only guess at how this experience will further my music career,” said the Duxbury, Mass., native, who hopes to become the business manager for a major record label. “My motto is: Never turn down the opportunity to sing, because you never know who will be listening. I just plan to live in that moment on stage and have fun with it.”
In addition to Thomas and Himmelman, the URI big band will consist of Taylor Allen (from Nashua, N.H.) and Chris Botelho (Portsmouth) on alto saxophone; Mike Grenier (North Kingstown) and Mark Tenenbaum (Portsmouth) on tenor saxophone; Collin Larkin (Pawcatuck, Conn.) on baritone saxophone; Tyler Barboza (Warren), Alyssa Oates (West Warwick), Mike Regan (Newport) and Matt Westefeld (Coventry) on trombone; Mike Pollart (Kingston), Erin Hall (North Smithfield), Manny Morales (Wakefield) and URI Music Instructor Mark Berney on trumpet; Sam Kurzontkowski (Holliston, Mass.) on bass; and Jesse-Ray Leich (North Kingstown) on drums.
Most of those playing saxophone, trombone and trumpet will make up the horn section of Jamie Cullum’s band and perform on Sunday, Aug. 2 on the main stage. Cullum, who plays piano and sings, is the most successful jazz artist ever in the United Kingdom, according to his website, and he has won numerous awards, including a Grammy and two Golden Globes. He will bring his own rhythm section and tenor sax player, but URI musicians will fill out the rest of his band.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for our musicians, and it’s going to be challenging,” said Sims. “They will have to learn all of Jamie’s musical charts and blend in with the rest of his band. But it will be a tremendous learning experience.”
Sims has developed a strong relationship with the foundation that puts on the Newport Jazz Festival every year. The foundation supports URI’s annual summer jazz camp for high school students by providing a festival performer as a guest artist at the camp. And all of the camp participants receive free tickets to the festival.
“The foundation is all about getting young people interested in jazz and doing outreach to jazz education groups, and they see that we do a lot of that,” Sims said. “And it’s great that festival founder George Wein mentions URI in the same breath with the top jazz schools in the country.”