MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — Gian Neri calls Essentially Ellington the Super Bowl of jazz competitions.
“It’s the biggest joy you can get in high school,” the Mountlake Terrace High School senior said. “You feel like you really know what you’re doing if you go there.”
Mountlake Terrace’s Jazz Ensemble 1 is one of 15 finalists competing in the national high school jazz band competition and festival May 10-12 at the Lincoln Center in New York City.
More than 100 school bands from across the United States auditioned for the 23rd annual Essentially Ellington — named for big-band jazz pioneer Duke Ellington — by recording and submitting three tunes from Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington library.
Mountlake Terrace selected to play “Teri” by Gerald Wilson, “Harlem Congo” by Chick Webb and “Harlem Airshaft” by Duke Ellington. They’re scheduled to perform Friday before a panel of judges, including the competition’s director, renowned jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
The festival concludes with a concert and awards ceremony featuring the three top-placing bands and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
This is the second year in a row the jazz ensemble, led by band director Darin Faul, has been invited to compete. In eight trips to the New York festival over the past 20 years, Terrace has placed in the top three twice, in 2005 and 2011.
Mountlake Terrace is one of three finalists from Washington — the most from any state. The others are Ballard and Roosevelt high schools in Seattle.
Though the jazz band has placed before, Gian, who competed in Essentially Ellington with the band as a junior, isn’t taking the competition for granted.
“You’re nervous up until you play,” the jazz guitarist said. “It’s a lot more nerve-wracking than you think it’s going to be.”
Each of the finalist bands receive an in-school workshop led by a professional musician before coming to New York. It preps them for when they have to put up their “Dukes” and perform for the judges.
Mountlake Terrace’s workshop clinician this year was Steve Fidyk. A longtime drummer, composer and educator at Temple University, Fidyk led a workshop April 16 at the high school. He gave the band invaluable feedback on their performances.
The students worked on everything from fundamentals to the philosophies behind jazz in the intensive four-hour workshop.
Fidyk, a former judge for the competition, told the students that judges don’t pay attention to whether a band hits every single note; rarely do they even have sheet music in front of them. Rather it’s originality, authenticity and enthusiasm that woo them.
He urged the band members to “put their own thumbprint on the music” and enjoy themselves on stage.
“The bands that have the most fun when they’re in these types of competitions tend to do the best,” Fidyk said, “because the audience can feed off that energy.”
Fidyk’s advice struck a chord with Gian, who was so nervous that he couldn’t eat before the band performed last year.
“I actually want to have a good time, because last time I was a little stressed,” Gian said. “I want to play comfortably on stage.”
Sophomore Solomon Plourd, who plays the trumpet, said preparation and playing loose on stage go hand-in-hand. Memorizing the music and how it’s played can open new ways of manipulating it. Solomon says he doesn’t have fun if his band sound like all the others.
“It kind of relates back to what (Fidyk) was talking about the whole time,” Solomon said. “Keeping it fresh, keeping it new.”
Solomon said the jazz workshop helped the band renew their energy about the piece.
“When you’re working on a piece for a long time, it kind of gets stale and you lose touch with what it is,” he said.
The band is familiar with the spotlight: Terrace has performed for judges at competitions like the Lionel Hampton Festival in Idaho, the Clark College Jazz Festival in Vancouver and the University of Washington Jazz Festival in Seattle.
Essentially Ellington is a massive step up. Director Darin Faul said it will be one of the biggest performances of their lives, not only because of the the competition, but because of the venue’s prestige. Lincoln Center regularly hosts nationally and internationally renowned musicians and bands.
Gian hopes his experience from last year’s competition, along with Fidyk’s added wisdom, will help keep the butterflies away this time.
“It’s about the attitude and about focus,” Gian said. “Once you’re focused, you can start to relax.”
Faul said they will be competing against musicians in New York who can play faster, with more virtuosity, better technique and who have more dazzling solos. But Faul is confident that if the band can follow through on Fidyk’s advice, Terrace has a shot at the top three.
“If we can be ourselves, and find that internal aesthetic, and have the music flow through us, and put on our own stamp on it — that’s enough,” he said.
Mountlake Terrace’s performance at the Lincoln Center in New York City will be streamed live at 11:30 a.m. May 11. Visit academy.jazz.org/ee for a link to the webcast.