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Dr. Ben Nichols Debuts as Director of Synthesis 

I can’t think of a time when I’ve heard a college big band play with such a degree of sensitivity to their fellow musicians, to time, to sound, and to the legacy of the music itself.

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By Randall Smith

The evening of November 18, 2022 represented a changing of the guard in the story of jazz at BYU, and indeed, in Utah. Dr. Ray Smith, longtime professor of saxophone and director of BYU’s top jazz ensemble, Synthesis, retired last year, and that auspicious Friday was the band’s first complete concert under the directorship of his successor, Dr. Ben Nichols.

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You’d think an event of this significance in the community would have drawn a bigger crowd. Historically, the de Jong Concert Hall has been sold out, often two nights in a row, for Synthesis concerts. As it was, the orchestra section was at about 75% capacity and the balcony was closed. 

Anyone who might have otherwise occupied one of those empty seats missed a truly inspiring experience featuring music by jazz juggernauts Charles Mingus and Jaki Byard, as well as a wonderfully imaginative arrangement of John Coltrane’s Impressions by the band’s own lead trombonist, Jack English. Perennial favorites like Boogie Stomp Shuffle and Moanin’ were played with a ferocity worthy of jazz’s “Angry Man,” while the unspeakably beautiful Goodbye Porkpie Hat (performed under a projected image of Lester Young and preceded by an emotional homage to Ruby Bridges, Mingus’ political bent, and the civil rights struggle of the 50s and 60s) was perhaps the highlight of the night.

BYU Synthesis. Photography by Nate Edwards/BYU © BYU PHOTO 2017
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The less well-known compositions of Jaki Byard were no less challenging to pull off than those of Mingus, and the band gave them not an iota less of the same focused, fearless commitment, highlighting every detail and constructing every texture with grace as well as enthusiasm. As a surprise to the audience, Ray Smith was invited to the stage to direct the band’s performance of Byard’s Olean Visist and soloed on the encore tune, Haitian Fight Song (a Mingus composition) following an immediate standing ovation. 

Synthesis has always sounded good, but that night it was evident that Dr. Nichols intended to lead the band in a different direction – indeed, a new musical vision. Having heard Synthesis a few times before and many college jazz bands over the years, I can confidently say that the level of musical artistry demonstrated and embodied by the ensemble that night is not easily reached. I can’t think of a time when I’ve heard a college big band play with such a degree of sensitivity to their fellow musicians, to time, to sound, and to the legacy of the music itself. There was a sense of joy and connection, but also a sense of respect, indeed, reverence that so frequently gets lost in the energy of such experiences. That heightened level of maturity coupled with Nichols’ penchant for teaching in-concert by way of visual media and a well-prepared script represent the makings of a shift in focus that’s sure to have an impact on the School of Music and the local scene.

Run – don’t walk – the next time you get a chance to see Synthesis in concert! Make sure to follow Synthesis on Instagram and check out their performance of “Sir Duke” below.

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