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'Jazz is Freedom': A conversation with the Austin High School All-Stars

On their way to all-state concert, Austin High School musicians talk about the sounds that have shaped them.

Brad Buchholz

The Austin High School Jazz Ensemble is a little bit like the New York Yankees. As a collective, director Peter Acosta's band is the class of its league, the premier interscholastic jazz combo in Texas. And like the Yankees, their lineup is rich with all-stars.

Meet Matt Kennon, on tenor saxophone; Solomon Ruppa, on baritone sax; and Scott Smart, on tenor trombone. These three musicians, all seniors, were recently selected to Texas' 20-seat All-State High School Jazz Ensemble. What's more: All three were voted first chair, the best of the best. It's an impressive accomplishment, considering no other school — or no other school district — placed more than two students in the all-state band.

Austin High School started to swing in national jazz circles in 2008, when the jazz ensemble — then under the direction of inspired teacher Tonia Mathews — qualified for the prestigious Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival in New York City. Kennon, Ruppa and Smart were just sophomores then, but the opportunity to rub shoulders with Wynton Marsalis and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center musicians clearly intensified their love of the form.

Kennon, Ruppa and Smart have spent most of this week preparing for the 2010 All-State concert — 10:30 a.m. today at the Grand Hyatt San Antonio's convention ballroom — as part of the Texas Music Educators Association annual convention. (Guitarist Kyle Samuel, of Stony Point High School in Round Rock, is also a member of the all-state ensemble). Together, they'll play an ambitious hour-long program that features tunes such as "Recordame" by Joe Henderson, "Jazz Crimes" by Joshua Redman and "Lazy Bird" by John Coltrane.

Before leaving town, Austin High's three all-state players sat together in the high school band hall and shared their thoughts about jazz — its beauty, its complexity, its place in their lives.

Austin American-Statesman: Can you talk about your connection to jazz, how it's evolved, what it means to you?

Matt Kennon: Jazz is freedom: The freedom to express anything that's going on in your head, to say things you can't express in words. It's the freedom to find your sound, your own sound, and express who you are when you solo. ...

Solomon Ruppa: Jazz has always seemed like this free "thing" to me, (too) ... but I don't think it was really until I heard this album by Oliver Nelson — "Afro-American Sketches" — that I had a great appreciation of jazz. It's my favorite album of all time. There's definitely that feel of an African beat, but painted with that American version of jazz. "Emancipation Blues" was one of my favorite songs on there. "Jungle Air" was another: It starts off with this crazy loud trumpet fanfare, then dies down and goes into this cool 5/4 jungle beat. It really caught my attention.

Kennon: I've been listening lately to the saxophonist Chris Potter, who's actually going to be in Austin on March 6 for the University of Texas jazz festival. Potter has one of the most distinctive voices in jazz. He's one of the few saxophonists in this era who has his own voice, one of those great musicians you can hear from two seconds of soloing and know who they are: "That's John Coltrane." Or: "That's Chris Potter." But the cool thing about Potter is that you hear the language of Coltrane and Charlie Parker and the other guys in there — but he's not just regurgitating their licks. He kind of internalizes it, and then makes it into his own sound.

Scott Smart: Jazz is a language in itself. It's like speaking, (in the sense that) you just can't play random licks in jazz. You gain a voice by listening to all these great players, finding out how they played, what they were doing with the music. Then you take that in, and perform it how you think about it. That's really what it comes down to for me.

Kennon: When you're improvising in jazz — especially in a small-group setting — there's a special kind of communication you have between all the messengers. There's a horn player soloing, the rhythm section playing, everyone in the band is really into it. And then there's this moment where you connect with everyone! When you play something, and someone plays off of it, the whole thing is like a conversation. But it's a conversation where you say ... everything!

Ruppa: Combo stuff is all right, but I really love big band stuff. ... I love to transcribe solos from the different songs that we play. The way these amazing musicians (play the solos in their original forms), it's almost impossible to think of another way to put it down. I compare it to someone in debate class who has composed this amazing speech. It's no different than someone working really hard on a solo for a song. And if you tried to take someone else's speech — to do your own version of it, from someone else's perfect words — it would be really hard to do it in a completely different way.

Kennon: I started out listening to Steely Dan, kind of jazz-rock stuff. And now this ever-changing path has led me to ambient music. I've been listening to a lot of Brian Eno lately, his ambient stuff. (The guitarist) Robert Fripp. Those guys. The whole thing is space when you listen to ambient music. Something Miles Davis said was "Don't give yourself away." That is: Leave space. Say something, have an idea, then let people digest it.

Smart: Phrasing and spaces ... you could say it's everything in a sense. It's hard, trying to send through everything that's coming through your mind. But the more you slow down and really listen to what you're doing, the more it will allow you to speed up (later) and express some ideas more clearly. ... I have this amazing live recording of Miles Davis' "My Funny Valentine." He's doing stuff all over the place, but he's always within the song.

Kennon: I love "Nefertiti" by Wayne Shorter. I wasn't alive when it was recorded, but I can listen to it today and it feels just as contemporary as anything. And it also feels just as classic as any Duke Ellington. He captures, at the same time, the most earthy and the most human feelings when he composes. There's a lot of caretaking in that song, as well as the stuff he did with Miles. Tone. Color. So much feeling conveyed in one note. ... The journey of Miles Davis tells you you can do anything, really, whatever it is that you hear in your head. Miles' big thing was never wanting to repeat himself. (Like Shorter,) he always wanted to be forward-moving. People would ask him to do an old song, but he wanted to be in the now. That really teaches me a lot, about creativity in general.