Free-spirited ensemble jazzes up Transylvania music program 

by John Friedlein

Random guitar notes burst through amps scattered around the risers as the musicians, waiting for practice to start, chatted and cracked a few jokes. Behind them, various instruments from other student groups — a tuba, for instance — were locked away in cages. 

The Transylvania Jazz Ensemble was about to get uncaged with theirs.

The group thrives off a creative spirit of improvisation, building off each others’ notes to make music that audiences dig — from the familiar confines of Carrick Theater to a local New Orleans-themed bar to the Kentucky Heritage Jazz Festival.

“It’s really listening and connecting with people you’re playing with,” said senior drummer Noah Hamblin, who’s also in the local heavy metal band Sphynx. “That can definitely go a long way just in life in general.”

Keeping an open mind and going with the flow have been part of the ensemble’s DNA since its beginning a few years ago when director Matthew Polashek arrived and reimagined what was then called the Jazz Band. The previous group had to enlist musicians from the community (like alumni) because of the school’s size. “I wanted it to be student performers only.” Polashek said. He wanted them to have that challenge.

So he went with a smaller format, incorporating the instruments students were already good at. It’s like going from a baseball team, with definite positions you have to fill, to a stickball game in the street — you’re not going to worry about whether you have a shortstop. Polashek finds out where his musicians’ talents lie and how to showcase them or provide support. “When you get into these nonstandard ensembles, you can really make them fly,” he said.

I wanted it to be student performers only… When you get into these nonstandard ensembles, you can really make them fly.

Matt Polashek, professor of music

Also a saxophone instructor with an MFA in music composition, Polashek brought some serious chops with him to Transylvaina. He’d taught music to high schoolers in Brooklyn and played a variety of Big Apple venues, from the Lincoln Center to Birdland to brunch at Sylvia’s in Harlem. Locally, he’s received numerous Lexington Music Awards, including for brass-wind player of the year, and his band BiGG SuGG and the JaZZ Funkers has earned Artist of the Year in the Jazz, Latin, Big Band and World category honors. Both he and BiGG SuGG have received Appalachian Arts and Entertainment Awards, too.

Trumpeter Lennon Stolz had heard about Polashek when he joined the ensemble as a new student looking to continue playing jazz like he did in high school. “I knew he was doing stuff in New York and thought that was cool,” the junior said.

Joining the group is a way for Pioneers to go beyond what they’re used to and build confidence. First-year student Sabrina Riggs, who is getting into jazz after having learned classical piano, played in the festival this past fall. “That was my first performance here,” she said. “It was a big jump for me.”

Junior Henry Ham, a bassist among other things, said it’s nice to perform outside the regular campus venue. At Creaux in downtown Lexington, the crowd pushed up right next to him, so he got an up-close feel to how they were responding. “It was so packed in there, and it felt really lively,” Ham said.

These off-campus shows come about thanks to Polashek’s connections to the local music scene. “If the planets align and we have a gig with my band, then we’ll do a show there,” he said.

BiGG SuGG headlining the Kentucky Heritage Jazz Festival in Shakertown led to the ensemble getting to play there, “which is kind of a big deal,” Polashek said.

They performed experimental, free-jazz forms and fusions at the festival (much like Polashek would play in New York clubs). “It was really way different than what everybody else was doing,” he said. “We were getting in there and blowing some minds.”

Polashek believes jazz and improv are basically one and the same, pointing out how during the big-band era, when a score got to a part calling for improvisation, it’d just say “jazz.”

Even with his extensive background, Polashek is still growing as a musician through his role at Transylvania. “Every teacher, if they’re a real teacher, is learning from their students all the time,” he said. “It makes me think more deeply about my own performances.” That comes in large part from having to explain something to particular students with personalized needs — in a way they can understand it.

A lot of it comes from that inherent chemistry that you have, It’s just trying to bring out the best in everyone so that the jazz ensemble as a whole can thrive.

Gabe Helgerson, junior

Those in the Jazz Ensemble practice twice a week and earn a quarter academic credit. Most are music majors, but the benefits go well beyond learning an instrument. Ham said playing some “crazy, upbeat” music where everybody’s improvising at once can be cathartic, not to mention a good stress reliever during finals.

Junior Gabe Helgerson also pointed out how their creative collaboration fosters a sense of community. “A lot of it comes from that inherent chemistry that you have,” said the electric guitar player. “It’s just trying to bring out the best in everyone so that the jazz ensemble as a whole can thrive.” When everyone is friendly and open, not vying to be a master musician, you develop nonverbal communication and start anticipating what the other musicians are going to do (they’re practicing the kind of symbiotic teamwork employers value as well). 

Helgerson added that it’s not like: “Here’s some people in the jazz band that we’ve just assembled together and you’re forced to deal with. It’s more like you get to find a bunch of new collaborators, and you get to find people to go out on adventures with at 2 a.m.”

More from this issue

Alumna wins teaching award

Mentorship Program Opens Doors

Pathways to Success