May 31, 2024 | Announcements

CJC Blue Ensemble Debut Album “Vexed” – Available on All Major Streaming Platforms June 28 via California Jazz Conservatory Records

Berkeley, California; May 30, 2024 – While all the members of Blue Ensemble are students in the California Jazz Conservatory’s degree program, the quintet’s debut album, Vexed, is the work of self-possessed artists who have found an arrestingly authentic group voice. Under the guidance of master drummer and composer Gerald Cleaver, CJC professor and drum department chair, the piano-less combo has blossomed with a sophisticated sound rife with melodic invention, lapidary textures, and spacious harmonica vistas. Available June 28 via California Jazz Conservatory Records, the digital-only release will be distributed on more than 150 music streaming services, including Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and YouTube.

The album release will be celebrated with a special Blue Ensemble concert on June 28th at 8:00pm at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall in Berkeley. Tickets are available for purchase at concerts.cjc.edu.

Featuring Adam Torres on alto saxophone and flute, Mario Ramirez on tenor saxophone, Joshua Aldana on guitar, Jonny Kaminek on bass, and Sheldon Alexander on drums, the ensemble recently clinched a victory at the California Jazz Championships in Folsom, solidifying their status as one of the top college ensembles in the nation. Recorded, mixed, and mastered in Valencia, Spain, Vexed features dauntingly impressive original compositions showcasing the ensemble’s cohesive group identity and gift for creating tension and excitement without deploying ostentatious virtuosity.

The album opens with Aldana’s “Vex,” an almost 12-minute piece that belies its title with its quietly calibrated dynamics and calm, measured tempo. Rather than evoking irritation, it’s a cool meditation that simmers through a series of lithe themes that rarely threaten to boil over. Much like “Vex” suggests the opposite state of mind, Kaminek’s “Feverish” is a winsome melody that features lustrous unison work by the saxophonists. Aldana’s single-note solo is a model of compressed lyricism and judicious use of space.

Alexander contributes three tunes to the album, including the gorgeous “Dreaming,” a piece reminiscent of work by the great bassist/composer Ben Allison, who has frequently recorded with similar piano-less ensembles. The album’s entire second half is taken up by Torres’s four-movement “Life’s Storm Suite,” an ambitious work with titles that seem more directly related to the material. With its coiled tension the opening movement “Foreshadow/Thunder” does suggest a gathering storm, which arrives, slowly but surely with “It Gets Worse/Impact,” though rather than gusting chaotically, this is a tempest that glides and swoops with balletic grace on the wings of Torres’s alto sax. Kaminek’s propulsive bass work centers and levitates “A Moment / The Eye,” which isn’t so much becalmed as alive with lyrical possibility. The suite closes with “Delirium/Aftermath,” an extended movement that gradually gathers momentum and intensity while maintaining an intense narrative focus. Like a J. M. W. Turner canvas, Vexed renders an atmospheric disturbance with subtle beauty and masterly control.

What’s most striking about Vexed, aside from the originality of the compositions and assurance of the musicianship, is the way the five musicians play as a group. One could call it preternatural maturity, but what it comes down to is taste and the ability to make musical decisions that serve a larger vision. It’s fair to say that the Blue Ensemble is more than the sum of its parts even while calling out the prodigious musicality of these players. Mark their names well.

Guatemalan American saxophonist Mario Ramirez grew up in Los Angeles and currently resides in the East Bay. He’s started making a name for himself among the region’s finest players with the Jazz Mafia, a stylistically encompassing collective led by trombonist/arranger Adam Theis, and the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, a composers’ and arrangers’ collective led by trumpet maestro Erik Jekabson. Inspired by jazz, Latin, pop, gospel and other sacred music forms, Ramirez is a rapidly rising force.

Raised in Paso Robles, Adam Torres brings his studies in European classical music and jazz to Blue Ensemble. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies from the California Jazz Conservatory. Drawing on the modern jazz continuum and influences from the classical and Romantic eras, he’s honed a highly personal voice as a composer. As a player, he’s immersed himself in both foundational icons such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and contemporary masters Kenny Garrett and Remy LeBoeuf, among others.

Raised in Santa Rosa, Sheldon Alexander is a multifaceted drummer and composer now living in Oakland. He got his start musically at the age of three playing drums in his great-uncle’s church, and went on to pursue his love of an array of African diaspora idioms, including jazz, hip hop, funk, soul, and other Afro-rooted styles. As the founder of the R&B fusion band Coexist, he merges diverse musical styles that resonate deeply with audiences.

East Bay guitarist Joshua Aldana’s musical path runs from Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin to guitar shredders Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Buckethead and Allan Holdsworth. He was smitten with jazz after hearing John Coltrane in his teens, which sparked the passion for improvisational music that has driven his creative pursuits ever since.

And Berkeley-reared Jonny Kaminek got his start on electric bass before switching to upright. Influenced by the bass playing of Ron Carter, Victor Wooten, and Paul Jackson and the music of George Duke, Ahmad Jamal, and Herbie Hancock, he enjoys playing jazz, funk and everything in between. Cherishing the community that evolves from the cooperative effort of live music, he writes compositions as a means to understand the experience of life.

Gerald Cleaver isn’t on the bandstand with Blue Ensemble, but as its director, the group reflects his wide-open sensibility. Since relocating from Brooklyn to the Bay Area in 2020 to take on a CJC professorship, he’s added a bracing jolt of creative energy to the local scene. A Detroit native and son of a jazz drummer, Cleaver grew up playing and loving just about everything the Motor City scene offered. But his musical identity is indelibly tied to the tradition-extending idioms that coalesced in the mid-1960s, an incomplete, if entirely understandable, picture of an aesthetic that has unfolded across a bountiful flow of albums as a leader, co-leader, and sideman.

Describing his relationship with the mainstream jazz tradition as “dyed-in-the-wool,” he notes that his long-standing relationships with Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and protean bassist William Parker meant he was “known as an outside player. Nobody knew I also played straight ahead. Over the years, I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do, and I have made more adventurous choices.”

Guided by Cleaver’s capacious ears, the players in the California Jazz Conservatory Blue Ensemble continue to grow at an astonishing rate.

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Blue Ensemble Cover

“Vex” from Official Album Vexed | California Jazz Conservatory Blue Ensemble

“Sorrow” from Official Album Vexed | California Jazz Conservatory Blue Ensemble

“Dreaming” from Official Album Vexed | California Jazz Conservatory Blue Ensemble