SOUTH PORTLAND — Jazz ensembles from South Portland High School, Greely High School in Cumberland, Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor and George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill were judged the best in the state Saturday night.

Student musicians from those and about 30 other Maine high schools showcased their improvisational skills Friday and Saturday at the 2016 Maine Music Educators Association High School Instrumental Jazz Festival in South Portland.

The festival, hosted by the South Portland High School music department and South Portland Music Boosters, brought together hundreds of students and their music directors from across the state. The annual event is both a festival and a competition, with winning jazz ensembles chosen from each of four divisions based on school enrollment size. Participating bands had to qualify at the district level to go on to the state competition.

On Saturday, 28 bands played sets of three songs each before a live audience and a panel of judges, with two semifinalists from each division going on to the final, evening round. They performed music of various styles, including big band, swing, rhythm and blues, Latin jazz, and rock ’n’ roll.

What distinguishes a jazz ensemble piece is the opportunity it provides for improvisation, said Greely High School Band Director Kevin Rollins. Unlike a concert piece, which requires a more literal interpretation of the composer’s intent, a jazz piece is more like a framework within which the musicians can express their individuality, he said.

“It’s about doing something creative and working in the moment,” Rollins said. “It’s the invitation to put your own mark on the music.”

That’s not to say the students are just up there winging it, he noted. It takes practice to understand the building blocks of a good jazz solo, following chord changes, knowing which notes will work and weaving them into the larger ensemble.

South Portland senior Victoria Holt said making it into the state jazz competition requires a lot of effort.

“We all work really hard to get here,” said Holt, who plays piano. “Even the bands that don’t get here work really hard.”

As each band performed Saturday, a panel of judges sat midway back in the auditorium and whispered their critiques in real time into digital recording devices.

“Usually what they’re picking up on is the good and the bad – what’s going well, where we can improve and how we can improve,” said Brewer High School Music Director Brady Harris.

Harris said each band receives copies of the judges’ audio critiques and uses them to improve future performances. “We added the flugelhorn based on the comments from the last competition,” he said.

Still, instruction and the chance to compete are only part of what makes the two-day event worthwhile, students and bandleaders said. The atmosphere is collaborative; students enjoy the performances of their peers and cheer them on.

“It’s more like a festival,” Falmouth High School Band Director Jim Horwich said. “It’s a really good atmosphere. … Kids root for their friends at other schools.”

South Portland junior Julia Stanton said her favorite thing about the competition is “seeing other bands and talking to them about how they do things.”

“You get a different perspective,” said Stanton, who plays bass guitar.

Owen Doane, a junior who plays trombone at South Portland, said the event’s biggest challenge is dealing with the pressure to perform well.
“I definitely think there’s some pressure on us, and we just have to work through it,” he said. “We’ve got a reputation to uphold.”

 

FESTIVAL AWARDS

Division I
First place – South Portland
Second place – Westbrook

Division II
First – Greely
Second – Hampden Academy

Division III
First – Mount Desert Island
Second – Old Town

Division IV
First – George Stevens Academy
Second – Ellsworth

OUTSTANDING MUSICIANS

Division I
Owen Doane (trombone) – South Portland High
Christian Park (trumpet) – Thornton Academy
Michael Peters (trumpet) – Noble High
Kemal Pohan (drums) – Westbrook High
Danny Porell (trumpet) – Westbrook High

Division II
Jenny Baker (voice) – York High
Bailey Giles (tenor sax) – Hampden Academy
Jenna Pavis (alto sax) – Greely High
Greg Pershing (piano) – Greely High
Harry Pershing (alto sax) – Greely High

Division III
Hannah Edgecomb (trumpet) – MDI
Ben Hagle (trumpet) – MDI
John Kennaway (trumpet) – Old Town
Issac Webb (alto sax) – John Bapst
Lucas Wood (trombone) – MDI

Division IV
Yvonne Rogers (tenor sax) – George Stevens Academy
Abigail Jakub (alto sax) – George Stevens Academy
Anthony Branca (guitar) – Washington Academy
Jordan Lambe (drums) — Washington Academy
Matthew Stephens (bass) — George Stevens Academy