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UCI’s Jazz Groups Brings A Jaunty Energy To The Stage Like No Other  

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UCI’s Small Jazz Groups showed up and showed out in their spring recital at Winifred Smith Hall on campus, organized by music professor Kei Akagi, on Wednesday, May 17 at 8 p.m. After months of practice and intricate refinements to their renditions, all of the musicians displayed their raw, genuine talent in the presence of an excited audience. 

Combining specific subgenres of jazz, including contemporary, classical and cool jazz, the groups took the audience through a roller coaster of emotions and musical impressions. To say the least, they showed UCI what they were all about, playing some fan favorites that captured the hearts and ears of many, such as renditions of the popular jazz standard “Misty” and songs by legendary jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond. 

The first ensemble, The Wednesday Combo, performed cooler, orchestral jazz pieces to ease the audience into the night. Kenji Inducta, a trumpetist and fourth year biomedical engineering major, played beautiful improvisations throughout all the pieces, showcasing his experience as he played a rich and luscious tune. 

Alto saxophonist and third year music student Akshay Sudhakar also delivered an exceptional performance. The tone of his instrument was also perfectly mastered, bringing out improvisations that made the whole room gasp in awe. The rest of The Wednesday Combo, consisting of third year software engineering student Enrique Bar-Or on trombone, fourth year philosophy major Nathaniel Edu on piano, medical education graduate student Rajeeve Dutta on bass, and third year computer science major Kenzo Lobo on drums, delivered sensual music that came from the pits of their stomachs and the fullness of their hearts. Their performance created an intimate connection that can only be elicited through music.

The Advanced Jazz Combo then took the audience to a whole new world. While some attendees, particularly those who simply attended to see their good friend perform or expected to listen to “elevator music,” may not have enjoyed these pieces, the musically astute members of the audience recognized the advanced nature of The Advanced Jazz Combo. 

This group performed contemporary modern jazz, most known as “avant-garde jazz.” This subgenre of jazz is characterized by syncopated beats and offbeats, accents and staccatos on random note intervals, and unique instrumental details. There is little to no melody, and the only melodies that do pop up in the arrangements are improvised, all following ever-changing keys and rhythms. 

Drummers Nico Coto, a fourth year music student, and Maddox Eckert, a second year music student, were the stars of the show, playing various percussion instruments: the drumset, gong and sleigh bells. They constantly drove the music toward a crescendo or slowed it down to add versatile dynamics to the performance. 

“During rehearsals we would jam for a while, one song at a time, continuously improvising and throwing out ideas. We played our heads off, and focused on what was sticking and left out what wasn’t … So much planning went into the process of developing and transitioning each song — it’s delicate yet chaotic music, and you really need to be able to strike the proper balance. We had a good idea of what we needed to do to keep the music moving forward, but still kept it fresh every time we did it,” Coto said in an interview with the New University. 

Much of what Coto and the jazz musicians played around with the triangle of musical sound and improvised during such a process. This musical concept structures melodic wind and string instruments as the top note or the most prominently guiding sound in the whole group. This triangle puts percussion instruments at the very bottom of the triangle in which audiences are supposed to hear these instruments the least. However, this truly advanced group completely ignored this triangle of musical sound in the final production by prioritizing the improvisations and musical creativity of the percussionists, allowing them to guide the entirety of the music. 

Behind the intricately accented and staccato beats were the more melodic instruments, such as fourth year music student, Daniel Montoya’s electronic wind instrument — more commonly referred to as EWI — and alto saxophone. As the EWI is such a unique instrument that portrays a variety of moods and tones, Montoya’s stylistic choice of interval jumps and musical scales surprised the audience in every second of his improvisations. 

“As far as improvisation goes, I usually have a vague idea on where I want to start, but for the most part my body just acts on its own, and I let my ears take me in the direction it wants to go,” says Montoya when describing his improvisation approaches to the New University. 

Third year music major Kiran Flemish’s tenor saxophone, fourth year music student Joseph Nguyen’s keyboards and third year music student Brennan Sakata’s bass also served the crowd with energetic, action-packed performances. Since The Advanced Jazz Combo chose arrangements that were modernized expressions of music and not the type of traditional jazz that is widely known in the music industry, it was expected that their performance would elicit an overwhelmingly bewildered reaction. They provided context of the subgenre and conceptual motivations behind musical choices to address questions and unfinished thoughts on their delivery. 

After a much-needed intermission to absorb the musical ingenuity and uniqueness that these professionally skilled musicians demonstrated, the audience was put at musical ease with more traditionally popular jazz music in the last half of the concert. 

The third group, The Faculty Combo, graced the audience with their delightful renditions of classic jazz arrangements and ingenious improvisations. Music lecturer Dr. Bobby Rodriguez’s trumpet improvisations were exceptional as he delivered the most heartwarming and delicate sounds that displayed his masterful expertise for the audience. Music instructor Darek Oles’ bass and music lecturer Jason Harnell’s drums had great chemistry when they traded off improvisations, embarking on a captivating and exciting musical adventure. Gerald Pinter’s saxophone, music professor Kei Akagi’s piano, and music professor Dr. Michael Dessen’s trombone delivered beautiful melodies that wooed and swayed their audiences into falling in love with the enticing sound of jazz ringing in their ears. 

It was no surprise that the program left the best performance for last. The Tuesday Combo delivered a performance that exceeded the audience’s expectations. The group demonstrated their extremely versatile wide range of music, showcasing the talents of feature vocalist and third year drama student Kaia Kim Weigandt and a pleasant addition of the flute played by third year business administration student Tiffany Wu. 

“I love the tight knit community and family I have been able to find in the UCI Jazz program. Our music lives on the shared language of improvisation, a secret language which brings musicians together in a unique and intimate way. I feel honored to be able to share the unspeakable bond between a group of people carrying on a piece of treasured history. Every student is viewed as a valuable member of the community, and our professors treat us like working professionals,” Weigandt said in an interview with the New University. 

The crowd felt and heard the efforts that the group put into their arrangements of big-band jazz. All of the musicians’ stylistic choices in their improvisations portrayed a passionate suave in their creative schemes of musicianship, using dynamic musical tools to pull in the audiences’ attention and tricky jumps of note intervals to challenge the normative melodic frequencies. 

The entirety of the group — Darek Oles and Brennan Sakata on bass, Daniel Montoya on alto saxophone, second year music student Oliver Kringel on tenor saxophone, and fourth year music student Johnny Martinez on drums — delivered such stunning compositions and magically in-sync musical productions that allowed the crowd to sink into their seats and transcend to another world of a collective peace of mind. 

Kei Akagi organized a remarkable concert with various subgenres of jazz performed by wonderful talents beyond imagination, to give the audience a little taste of what the world of jazz has to offer. UCI’s music program continuously impresses their students and outside audiences through their everlasting search for the best musical versions of themselves and a true love for the practice and production of music. 

Cameryn Nguyen is an Arts & Entertainment Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at