“Come in here and play like it’s your last time playing that horn,” was advice from award-winning trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos that the Fullerton Jazz Orchestra took to heart during its latest performance.
Friday night’s program was filled with punchy tunes dedicated to the memory of world-famous trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. When the lights dimmed, Director Bill Cunliffe greeted the packed Meng Concert Hall, ushering in a night of impressive impromptu performances.
“A lot of those soloists you saw, (Cunliffe) was just pointing at them. That wasn’t planned and they were just improvising,” said fourth-year baritone saxophonist Michael Hardt.
Solos aside, the Cal State Fullerton students were given only a month or two to rehearse for much of the show, receiving some charts as late as a few days before. Despite limited practice time and on-the-spot calls, the instrumentalists delivered on Cunliffe’s high expectations with clear composure as they took turns in the limelight.
Just before the halfway mark, the orchestra was accompanied by one of its own for a vocal performance of “Nature Boy” arranged by Cunliffe.
It was the first time senior tenor saxophonist Colin Monaco had an opportunity to sing in a Fullerton Jazz Orchestra show, but it would also be his last as he will graduate this fall. Although his instrumental solo was unexpected, Monaco’s transition from microphone to sax and back during the song appeared effortless.
“I think there were a few things I could have done better, but overall I’m content with it,” Monaco said, adding that he’s nitpicky by nature.
Monaco wasn’t the only vocalist in the program either. Instead of returning to instrumentals the program immediately continued with the Fullerton Jazz Singers. When Cunliffe briefly left the stage, the two ensembles shared a single energizing tune with the audience as the singers jived to the orchestra’s melodies and solos.
After a brief intermission, Cunliffe introduced guest artist and long-time friend Castellanos, who only spent a few hours with the orchestra teaching a master class before the show.
“The first thing that I noticed with Fullerton is that everybody here is super serious and has positive energy. That made it so much more easy for me to come in and just swing with them,” Castellanos said.
Humbly treating it like “the altar of joy” at church, Castellanos found his way to the left side of the stage where he spent most of the night blowing holes through the roof whenever he had the spotlight. Orchestra members were enchanted by Castellanos ever-expanding solos that demanded their full attention, and some were fortunate enough to trade bars with him during his choruses.
“It’s just very cool to get the privilege to share the stage with someone so talented, someone so nice and someone so willing to just come out here and help us out,” Hardt said.
The admiration was mutual, and Castellanos couldn’t stay in his part of the church as he made his way to join the horn section on the stand for a tune.
“For me to be able to play with students of this caliber and to be invited by Bill Cunliffe and Chuck (Tumlinson), that’s a privilege, that’s not a gift,” Castellanos said. “You get surrounded with the right musicians, the chemistry and how things flow so organically, for me it’s just like floating on a cloud.”
The program was well-paced to showcase each section evenly, giving everyone a platform to share their message of choice. Even Cunliffe took a break from conducting to play a spontaneous piano-trumpet duet, Thelonious Monk’s “Let’s Cool One,” with Castellanos, sprinkling in a few holiday melodies throughout. Undeterred by the three or four years since they last played together, the duo tackled the chart with confidence and without missing a single beat.
“We called the tune on the stage. We didn’t know what we were going to play,” Castellanos said.
The audience received the surprise well, uproariously applauding as it came to a close, but Cunliffe quickly returned the focus to his students and Castellanos for the closing arrangements.
With such a horn-heavy homage, it would’ve been easy for the rhythm section to fall by the wayside, but its members used their solos to shine just as brightly as the brass, making sure everyone found their home on two and four along the way.
When the concert closed on a single grandiose, unified note, Monaco and the rest of the orchestra had left everything on the stage just as Castellanos instructed.
“It’s bittersweet. It went by super fast,” Monaco said. “In my short time being in this particular group, it’s been a lot of fun and I’ve learned so much.”