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In one of Berklee's most eclectic commencement concerts in years, students paid tribute to three industry veterans in a concert with only quick glimpses of the music style that has been linked the longest with the college: jazz. Performers tackled the work of honorees trumpeter/composer Herb Alpert, vocalist/songwriter Patti Austin, and VH1 CEO John Sykes in a program that moved from the pure pop of Alpert's "Wonderful World" to the alternative rock of "Interstate Love Song," a song originally recorded by Sykes' EMI signee Stone Temple Pilots, to the Austin/Quincy Jones rap/r&b hybrid, "The Dude."
But on graduation weekend, the concept of musical genres and boundaries always seems less important than the two central themes of the occasion: celebrating music and the launching of hundreds of new music careers. And in both the commencement concert and ceremony, Berklee's graduating class underscored those themes with high levels of talent, energy, and intelligence.
The concert, held on Friday, May 12, in the Berklee Performance Center, opened with a solo acoustic guitarist strumming the chords of the instrumental "Think About It," from Herb Alpert's latest album, "Colors." Trumpeter Rashawn Ross added the melody while strolling on stage, and then played a solo whose opening lines were hard and funky before mutating to a more contemplative and lyrical mood.
On the next few tunes, vocalists shined as Meezanne Hanna sang the soulful Austin ballad "It's Gonna Be Special," Julie Mahendran performed a strong scat solo on Austin's "Havana Candy," and Erin Vulgamore and David Balfour sang a duet on a country version of "Wonderful World," the Alpert tune first made a hit by Sam Cooke.
After performing compositions in succession by Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Stone Temple Pilots, and the Beatles, students performed a five-song medley of songs by artists who Sykes signed at various points in his career. The medley opened with a powerful rock vocal from Kevin Bachelder on John Mellencamp's "Paper in Fire," and ended with David Wilson singing lead on Don Henley's "Boys of Summer."
Faculty member Jerry Cecco joined the student band in the Herb Alpert chair as the group brought to life the 1960s hits of Alpert's Tijuana Brass, including "Spanish Flea" and "The Lonely Bull." Trumpets ruled during the Tijuana Brass medley, but one of the strongest soloists throughout this section and the concert on the whole was tenor saxophonist Bob Reynolds. His horn screamed with intensity on "Bittersweet Samba," but on the next tune provided a sensitive obbligato and solo on "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
After a three-song Patti Austin medley, vocalist Bachelder and pianist Yoon-Seung Cho added fire to "Morning," a mini-rock-opera tune from a Michel Columbier record, "Wings," produced by Alpert. The mood switched quickly on the next song, as vocalists David Balfour and Rhea Dummett gave a dramatic rendering of "Baby Come to Me," a Rod Temperton tune recorded by Austin.
On the final tune of the night, the band locked into a Parliament-like funk groove and all vocalists returned to the stage for "The Dude." Each singer took turns on the verses, while Balfour, wearing a headset, took care of the rapping responsibilities. It seems perfectly appropriate that, in the year 2000, a group of talented contemporary musicians can move seamlessly from Tijuana Brass to hard-driving rap. It demonstrates that, along with everything else Berklee students learn over the course of four years, it can't hurt to be ready to play anything.