Faculty Jazz improvisation delights students and children

A jazz improvisation performance by drummer and WCC music instructor and Jazz Director Christian Casolary delighted audience members. Together with Roger Yamashita on bass and Kevin Woods on trumpet, the trio performed seamless improvisation of several numbers suggested by audience members. 

Jazz improvisation group
Christian Casolary, Kevin Woods and Roger Yamashita created jazz improvisation in a performance in Heiner 209 on Weds, April 17. Photo by Annette Townsend

An amusing highlight of the performance was an on the spot rendition of “The Itsy, Bitsy, Spider” that occurred when Casolary asked the children in the audience to name one of their favorite songs to sing. Woods began with a run through of the base melody then was joined by Casolary and Yamashita as they improvised a jazzed out version that had the kids dancing in front of their seats and one youngster drumming on the edge of the stage along with Casolary.

The smaller performance space in Heiner 209 helped create the feeling of an intimate jazz club.

Percussionist, Jazz drummer and WCC Music faculty and jazz coordinator Christian Casolary performs improvisational jazz in Heiner 209. Photo by Annette Townsend

A question and answer period followed the performance. Many in attendance were jazz students and the questions were relevant to creating good improvisation. Each musician had a different answer when asked about what they were thinking about while performing.

Casolary responded that there are a lot of thoughts going through his mind. While some of those thoughts were about distractions such as how the audience was responding or if the room was too hot, most of his thoughts were devoted to listening to what was happening and the sound being created “hearing the colors and textures being created and interacting and responding to that in a way that is not dropping the ball.”

WWU music department faculty and Jazz Department Coordinator Kevin Woods improvises a jazz rendition of ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider’ based on a suggestion from children in the audience. Photo by Annette Townsend

Woods explained that he keeps the song on a loop in his head. Keeping the base melody in mind helps with the form and structure of the improvisation. He said what he does is not thought out.

“Every note is action, reaction and interaction to what they and I do,” Woods explained. “There are thousands of actions, reactions and interactions in every song.”

Bassist Roger Yamashita listens intently and interacts with the other musicians to create improvisation based on audience member suggestions. Photo by Annette Townsend

Yamashita explained his experience with an analogy comparing improvisation to driving a well-known route while having a deep conversation with your passenger: “Every now and then you have to pay attention to the road, then you can get back to your conversation.”

All agreed that improvisation just happens and that it is difficult to break it down in a way that makes it easy to explain, but that it is imperative to trust the people you are playing with in order to create good improvisation.

In addition to performing, Woods is music department faculty and Jazz Department Coordinator at Western Washington University. Yamashita is a local musician and Education Director for the Jazz Center of Bellingham. Casolary directs the Connection Jazz Series that is held monthly every summer at the FireHouse Arts & Events Center from June through September, in addition to performing and teaching. 

Casolary and Yamashita perform again on April 24 as part of the BJ Block Trio at the FireHouse in a collaboration of jazz, classical and crossover music with chamber music group rioT.

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