Originally published in The Weekly Packet, September 7, 2023
GSA’s honors jazz combo performs at Blue Hill Fair
Ensemble of eight musicians boasts six new members
George Stevens Academy’s jazz program debuted its newest honors combo at the Blue Hill Fair on Saturday, September 2. Featuring five new and two returning musicians, the ensemble played a 10-song set under the direction of Music Director Phelan Gallagher. From left are Mattea Black (vocals), Ansel Tenney (keyboard), Brady Hutchins (bass), Iris Kimball (flute), Fred Coit (trumpet), Gallagher (soprano sax), Erik Davis (tenor sax) and Liam Stearns (alto sax). Sayer Bramblett-Williams (drums) obscured in background.
by Sophie Landrum
Following the run of George Stevens Academy’s 2022-23 top combo, the honors jazz program debuted its newest ensemble at the Blue Hill Fair on Saturday, September 2. The band, comprising two returning members and six new musicians, played a 10-song set under the direction of GSA Music Director Phelan Gallagher.
The 29th fair performance in 30 years by GSA jazz musicians featured familiar tunes like “Footprints” and “Pass the Peas,” in addition to more contemporary numbers such as Kamasi Washington’s “Askim.” The set was broken up by a heartfelt 1st birthday number for Gallagher’s daughter, Freddie, who watched from the grandstands alongside friends, family and fairgoers alike.
This year’s members of the audition-based group, which meets during school hours, follow in the wake of a successful competition season for last year’s ensemble. Three of the five seniors in the “Deep Space” combo won All-State honors and led the group to a rating of gold at the 2023 Maine State Jazz Festival.
Although unnamed and with a singular gig under its belt, Gallagher already has faith that GSA’s jazz program can repeat these accolades under new leadership and with a fresh sound.
“To me, if we can do this gig and they can get up there and put themselves out there with this little preparation time, the rest of the year is going to be a breeze,” he said, referring to the mere two weeks of rehearsals leading up to the set’s debut.
As for the musicians themselves, the group boasts an array of talent and instrumental identity. Returning member senior Mattea Black gave performances on vocals, vibes and keys, while fellow combo veteran Iris Kimball, also a senior, showcased her skills on the flute. Musicians making their first appearances included seniors Sayer Bramblett-Williams on drums and Liam Stearns on tenor sax, with juniors Fred Coit on trumpet, Erik Davis on alto sax, Ansel Tenney on vibes and keyboard, and Brady Hutchins on bass.
Having gone through the audition process this spring, new members of the honors combo finally got to revel in their first gig while also looking forward to the band’s trajectory towards improvement.
“I think we have come a long way since our first rehearsal, but I also think we have a long way to go. For the first gig, with as little preparation as we had, I think it was great, and I see a bright future for this combo,” said Bramblett-Williams.
Tenney also expressed his excitement about the group’s breadth of ability as more performance opportunities approach along with the new school year.
“I’m really looking forward to doing more gigs when we can get a little more dynamic and deeper into the music,” he said.
In Gallagher’s eyes, the competitive ensemble’s success is more dependent on the individual passions of his students than the instruction he can offer. He believes it’s time to let the musicians capitalize on their own potential, collaborating to choose music that showcases their skills.
“I’m just excited to see what these guys bring to me for music because a lot of what we’re trying to do is let the student interest drive the repertoire and play,” he said.
While George Stevens Academy’s top combo does not currently have any scheduled gigs, be on the lookout for performances at the winter concert and other GSA events as the school year unfolds.