Alaska Inspired Jazz

Dan Mac Quintet at SHS
Dan Mac Quintet at SHS

By Heidi Zemach for SCN

The newly-renovated Seward High School Auditorium vibrated to a modern, jazzy beat Saturday night. It was the first concert of a monthly jazz series sponsored by the Seward Arts Council, in cooperation with the Seward Community Foundation.

About 65 people of all ages attended inspired performances by pianist Dan McElrath and the Dan Mac Quintet of Anchorage. Rick Zelinsky, of Anchorage, played a host of glittering saxophones and clarinets of all sizes and tones–from the cutest little soprano saxophone and petite clarinet (shaped like a sax), to a heavy, long earthily-low bass clarinet. They performed with Pat Owens on trumpet, Errol Bresler on bass guitar, and Cameron Cartland on the drums. Friday afternoon McElrath gave SHS students a preview during a school meet and greet, and talked about his work.

Many of the pieces performed, composed by McElrath, had Alaskan themes, and are featured on his CD, “AJAZZKA” whose cover sported a painting of Humpy Cove at the Orca Lodge—much to the owners’ surprise and delight. One piece, “Just an Otter” was inspired by the antics of a sea otter and harbor seal he saw interacting in Resurrection Bay. The trumpet and bass guitar made discordant squeaking sounds throughout that mimicked the sounds of these critters. Another, called “Emerald Isle” was inspired by a sunny day in Kodiak—a somewhat rare, but beautiful event. The tinkling piano evoked ocean waves lapping against the rocks, while the melody, played on the sax and trumpet, created the impression of the Kodiak landscape’s splendid grandeur.

Dan McElrath

 Elrath, who tunes pianos along with his wife Vada for needed income, is attracted to jazz primarily for its passion and improvisation. “I mean every night a song can be different depending on the mood of the band and of the soloist. There’s no other music that I play that has that freedom to express yourself and go wherever you want to go.” The beauty of playing with other talented instrumentalists is that one can try new things, and explore new places right in the middle of a concert that you never even rehearsed, McElrath said. No other form of music really allows musicians that freedom, he said.

When composing from his piano, McElrath tries to describe places or events through the combination of notes and feel of the melodic line, (which he views as the heart and soul of his jazz pieces) just as artists choose from among variety of colors on a palette to describe the scenes they paint. Once he has written the melody, he adds the rest of the quintet’s parts, often making sure to put in some repetitive chord progressions in certain places for his fellow musicians to improvise over.

Zelinsky, the saxophonist and clarinetist, teaches 6th grade band in seven different Anchorage schools for a living—five bands per day! It’s a lot of fun introducing the kids to band instruments, and making sure that they start off on their musical journey with the tools they will need, he says. Zelinski impressed by the auditoriums’ renovation and its “fabulous acoustics” that enabled him, and the audience to hear even the lowest notes of the bass clarinet. He describes what’s special about jazz: There’s a lot of suffering, I mean the world is just a tough place to live, and jazz gives us a chance for temporary freedom and happiness. That’s what jazz is; it is temporary freedom to do, and express yourself, and also communicate with your band members.”

Next month’s Seward Arts Council jazz series concert, Nov 19, at 7:00 p.m. at SHS is the Monica Lettner Quintet.

Dan McElrath’s: website:
Rick Zelinsky’s: website



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