NEW VOICE IN BIG BAND WRITING EMERGES IN AWARD-WINNING RISING JAZZ STAR
Every so often, an article appears in print or social media that ponders whether jazz is dead or just on its last legs. While it’s true that jazz is just a tiny part of the overall music market and the larger venues for jazz performance have become fewer over the last several years, the jazz culture has been kept alive by a growing cadre of hard core fans. And judging by the number of high schools and universities that offer specialized jazz education, the interest in the music among younger people is still very strong.
Trombonist, composer, and arranger Mariel Austin
is an exciting, young talent on the jazz scene. Although still in the early stages of her career, she’s already drawing attention. She’s the recipient of the ASCAP Foundation Phoebe Jacobs Prize, part of the 2018 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Awards, and she was selected by the New York Youth Symphony to compose a First Music Commission piece for the 2015-2016 Jazz Band. Austin is now releasing her first recording project, Runner in the Rain
, an EP comprising five of her arrangements for a big band.
Born and raised in Berkeley, CA, Austin enjoyed music from a very young age, playing flute, piano, clarinet, and alto sax in public school. However, none of those instruments held her interest for very long. Things changed when her parents took her to a concert by the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble when she was just 13 years old. “I loved music ever since I was in elementary school, and I always looked up to the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble. I actually had a secret goal to make it into the Ensemble once I reached high school." relates Austin. “One day, my parents took me to a concert by the Ensemble, and half way through the performance, they played Charles Mingus
’ “Fables of Faubus.” It was, of course, a big band arrangement. They began the tune with the famous opening line featuring a bari sax and a particularly zealous bass trombone player. The moment I heard that sound, I was struck. It just clicked with me, and I knew right then that I wanted to be a trombone player.” She eventually went to Berkeley High and joined the jazz ensemble, touring with the group to several international festivals, including the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, and the Kurashiki Music Festival in Japan.
As with many creative individuals, Austin has more than one artistic outlet, and after high school, she was torn between majoring in music or in fashion design. She went down to Los Angeles to attend Cal State Northridge, which offered both majors, but it didn’t take long for her to decide that music was her true calling. She became a member of the CSUN Jazz “A” Band and graduated with a Bachelor of Music Degree in Jazz Studies. After graduation, her skills on the trombone got her many TV gigs on shows like American Idol and The Voice, but she wanted to continue growing as an artist and decided to further her education, so she attended the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, earning a Master’s Degree in Jazz Composition in 2015. After graduating, Austin stayed for a couple of years in Boston and recorded Runner in the Rain
. She returned recently to LA to restart her studio work.
Austin gathered her compatriots from the NEC and the Berklee College of Music to record Runner in the Rain. The high quality of musicianship on this CD belies the relative youth of these players. These musicians are ready to share the bandstand with more experienced professionals.
Austin’s compositions are complex and satisfying. She has a strong visual imagination (the CD cover is one of her paintings) which she translates into musical imagery. She opens the CD with an original tune she calls “A Rough, Unsorted Compiling of Ways Not to Exist.” Inspired by the big band writing of George Russell
, who is one of the first to formulate a theory of harmony based on jazz rather than European music, Austin takes you on a trip across distinctive musical landscapes, with each representing a different state of mind. The first section represents frustration and uncertainty. The second section represents brooding. The third section suggests liberating anger. The fourth section is a recapitulation of the first section, modulated a step above, representing reflection and movement forward.
“Night Dreamer” is a Wayne Shorter
composition that Austin arranged for a school competition. She added a vibraphone to give the music a dreamy quality and populated the background horn section with musical quotes from Shorter.
“Mirror Shift” is an original composition that was performed by the New York Youth Symphony. Her composition was one of three pieces chosen from hundreds of submissions. At one point in the piece, she directed the woodwind players to sing their parts rather than play them.
“One Way Journey Home” is a funk ballad that Austin wrote for the Jazz Composers Ensemble in grad school when she was feeling homesick. Austin relates, “When I was giving direction to the horn section, I told them to think about someone they really missed. Someone they really longed for.”
Austin lends her lovely voice to “Runner in the Rain,” the title tune. She originally wrote it as an experiment with electronic music, but when she found out that a friend had died, she re- arranged the tune as a touching big band chart. The tune is an elegy in a way, and not just for my deceased friend, “ says Austin. “I was also thinking of everyone I never got a chance to say good-bye to, especially my mentors and inspirations who helped me become the person I am today.” She was also reading “Watership Down” at the time and included in her CD package a quote from the book which reads, “My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”Runner in the Rain
is a stellar introduction to a burgeoning musical talent. This first recording by Mariel Austin is only the opening salvo by a composer, arranger, and performer whose career trajectory is surely aimed at the jazz firmament.Runner in the Rain
is available in stores and online everywhere.