WPI Journal  
Volume CI, No. 3 - Summer 1999

Fascinatin' Rhythms

By Chet Williamson

The rehearsal begins with the tuning note.

Blown through the bell of a trumpet, a single, yawning B-flat fills the air like a foghorn in search of light. Picking up this fundamental frequency, the ensemble responds to the call. At first the bleating sound is nothing more than a field of white noise.

"Okay, the idea is to try to match the pitch to everyone else in the ensemble--for those of you who've lost that concept," deadpans director Rich Falco. His humor sets the 23 members of the WPI Stage Band at ease. "Let's try it one more time. Concert B-flat, everyone."

Once again the room swells with the note. As the aural formation falls in line, cacophony is transformed into a meadow of harmony. Having just returned from a long holiday break, the students seem to need a little help getting back into the groove. Falco flips through his charts looking for a number that will get their juices flowing.

"Right now, more than anything, we need to play. We haven't played in a few weeks. Some of you, literally, haven't played in weeks," he says wryly, looking around the room. "I'd like to start with something exciting; something that pushes the edge a little bit. Let's take out 'Hit and Run.'"

"Hit and Run" is a modern jazz chart written for trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. The tune breaks out fast and bristles right through to the finish line. "Okay," Falco shouts again, snapping his fingers to set the tempo. "Let's review some of the concepts. This is bebop. Straight-ahead. All unison writing, for the most part. There are going to be some misplaced figures, a la Thelonious Monk." He scats a few tritone figures: "Be do, be do, bebop."

Tom Hall '00, a trombonist in the band, says Falco conducts with an encouraging spirit that students find inspiring. "He really is jazz," says Hall, a junior completing a double major in electrical engineering and music. "He's excited about it. He's not a dictator on the podium. He knows what he wants, though, and conveys that to us. His enthusiasm really feeds our fire."

Falco directs the band like a traffic cop who's taken lessons from a matador. He is graceful and mechanical--springing toward the sax section to bring down the dynamics, standing on his toes when the trumpets need to reach, clapping his hands emphatically when the tempo falters. Visualizing the beat, he flags his hands left to right, up and down. He is a rare bird in the music community--a jazz conductor.

Still finger-popping, he adds, "The front part is straight-up unison. When you are doing unison playing, you want to get a little bit of an edge to your sound...without a lot of volume. Tuck into the rest of the section. Everybody equal in volume. Okay, one, two ... a one, two, three, four...."

The WPI Stage Band
is one of three award-winning jazz performance groups at the University. Under Falco's direction, the groups play 20 to 30 times throughout the academic year at concerts and festivals, on live radio and television, in recording sessions, and in joint programs with other colleges across the country. Each group also takes part in community outreach programs, bringing music to such local organizations as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the UMass Medical Center Children's Association, and the United Way.

This year, Falco marks his 20th anniversary as a teacher of the art and science of jazz at WPI. As director of jazz studies, he not only conducts all three WPI jazz ensembles, but lectures on the history and theory of this uniquely American art form. His tenure began when he was asked to sign on as a visiting instructor to organize and conduct the school's first two jazz ensembles.

"It was a natural progression," Falco says. "Initially, there were performance ensembles that began to grow. It soon became obvious that students needed to know jazz and popular music theory and jazz history, so that they could understand stylistic performance practices--to approach the music from an area other than just reading what was written on the page.

"It was a natural progression....The program expanded as student interest in the ensembles fed into the academics. In some sense, it's almost like the tail wagging the dog."

"So that necessitated classes in those two areas. The program expanded as student interest in the ensembles fed into the academics. In some sense, it's almost like the tail wagging the dog: academics being driven by student interest in the ensembles. Although, it's not only jazz performance students who take these classes. There is wide campus interest."

Describing the 40-something Falco is like trying to sketch a bird in flight. One part jazz hipster, one part college professor whose engaging personality and youthful energy are disarming and infectious, he is wiry, intense, constantly on the move. With a face framed by curly black hair, he wears wide-eyed glasses and a Fu Manchu mustache.

Falco was born and raised in Worcester, where he lives with his wife, Lucia Clemente-Falco, and their daughter, Mattina. He played guitar as a child and started lessons at 15. He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied guitar with Bill Leavitt and special big band and ensemble techniques with Herb Pomeroy. Long before his arrival at WPI, he was well known as a jazz musician in Central New England. He remains active as the leader of the Rich Falco Jazz Quartet, which plays mainstream, contemporary and Latin jazz in concert venues throughout the area and is currently recording a new CD.

Over the years, Falco has become a prominent figure in the Central Massachusetts jazz community. He is past president of the Jazz Worcester Society and founder and artistic director of the Jazz Worcester music festival. He has taught at Clark University, where he also directed the Jazz Workshop and Jazz Combo. He offers private instruction in jazz guitar and improvisation at the Clemente Guitar Studios in Worcester. Walter Crockett, longtime chronicler of music in the area, once wrote, "Falco is one of those few people whose removal from the Worcester scene would cause an audible decline in the quality of life."

That's a sentiment shared by many WPI students and alumni. Says Mike Andrews '97, a graduate student working on a master's degree in electrical engineering who started playing jazz in the ensembles as a freshman, "Rich Falco is basically my guru.

"It takes a great amount of training to play this music. It is a very sophisticated language. I tell students that, unlike vernacular, this is more like a poetic language."

"I was a fairly strong high school musician, and I wanted to continue playing on some level. Having the jazz groups here was just amazing. It blew me away. The emphasis was more on the process and less on the product. I remember one rehearsal where we worked on "Blue and Green" by Miles Davis. It's difficult to improvise on. It's a 10-bar form and the changes loop back on themselves. We spent the entire rehearsal trying to build the connection."

Under Falco's direction,
jazz studies at WPI has blossomed into an internationally recognized program. Various ensembles have performed extensively throughout the United States and in Western Europe (France, Belgium and Luxembourg), Eastern Europe (Russia and Romania), Central Europe (Austria and the Czech Republic) and Egypt. Last year WPI's jazz musicians traveled to Spain, and plans are in the works for more travel in the year 2000, to either Greece or Italy.

The versatile jazz ensembles directed and conducted by Rich Falco perform more than 20 times each year in venues formal and informal.
"We've done five tours abroad," Falco enthuses. "It's very interesting to see the reaction of folks when an American group is playing American-made music. It's interesting to get their perspective--the music is so representative of the American spirit.

"It takes a great amount of training to play this music," Falco explains. "It is a very sophisticated language. I tell students that, unlike vernacular, this is more like a poetic language. It is necessary to actually study nuance, understand syntax, and understand a lot of what is being subtly stated or understated. This becomes an area of exploration as opposed to something like a rock vernacular where everything is right out in front."

Engineers and jazz musicians often find themselves speaking a common language. The vertical and horizontal groupings of music--harmony and melody--can often suggest patterns similar to those found in mathematics and science.

"There are a lot of patterns that crop up in jazz," Andrews says. "Specifically, numerical patterns that can transfer to a pattern of notes. A lot of my practice is thinking of numerical patterns--working them out in my practice sessions. Then they will come out as organic material when I'm playing. It's really interesting to see how engineers react to jazz. We're quick to absorb all the technicalities of the music. Rich Falco has figured out exactly what students in a technical environment need to absorb this music."

Jazz is a relatively
new field of study on American campuses. It didn't become widespread until the 1960s. Before that it was largely an underground music learned in private studies and on the bandstand. "Historically, there have been two lines of thinking on jazz education," Falco says. "One is that the music can only be taught one-on-one. You need a mentor relationship. This is the way it was taught through the late 1940s and into the 1950s."

Since then, Falco says, jazz has become more academic, much like the traditional European approach to music education. "At WPI, I have an opportunity to do both," he says. "I can do something in the classroom for folks who are not players. On the other hand, I've got a college big band and a smaller jazz ensemble. They perform often, much more than groups typically do even at conservatories and other music schools."

When they are not playing, jazz performers at WPI are exposed to some of the greatest jazz artists working today. Through the jazz studies program, WPI has presented in concert such performers as Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Sun Ra, Curtis Fuller, Ralph Towner, Jaki Byard, Max Roach and Pat Metheny. Has having these jazz masters on campus enlightened students? "Absolutely! No question," says pianist/ electrical engineer Jim Heffernan '85. "The WCUW Concert Series in the early 1980s had national figures like Anthony Braxton, Vinnie Golia and Archie Shepp. Most of the concerts were held downstairs in Alden Memorial, in this nice little warm setting. That was happening!

"when you see these incredible masters and they are sitting right in your school. Then, the following Wednesday night, you're playing in the same room, on the same piano they played on."

"At the same time, we were playing in Rich's groups. There was a real sense that we were on to something really good here. Even though we were just beginning and had a lot to learn, there was a sense of depth. It's the sort of thing that gives you the fuel to keep going and exploring the art form--when you see these incredible masters and they are sitting right in your school. Then, the following Wednesday night, you're playing in the same room, on the same piano they played on. Those were very valuable experiences."

Falco says WPI brings at least one international artist to campus every year to do a clinic, workshop or performance. "In recent years, we've tried to focus on the younger players. This year we had Christian McBride. We had Cyrus Chestnut last year and Mark Whitfield the year before." Last November, McBride, who has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea and the late Betty Carter, among others, conducted a workshop and clinic featuring the WPI Jazz Ensemble and the International Association of Jazz Educators Massachusetts All-State Combo.

"Jazz in Our Midst" is another outstanding feature of the jazz studies program. "This gives our students a lot of exposure to regional players," Falco says. "And it makes regional players aware of the college." Last December, local trumpeter Jerry Sabatini conducted a clinic titled "Jazz Improvisation and Composition." In March, flutist Abby Rabinovitz offered another, called "Indian Music in Jazz: Exploring the Boundaries." More recently, guitarist and composer Troy Nielsen '91 presented "Jazz and the Avant-garde." Nielsen has designed a workshop for exploring modal and free jazz performance techniques from a historical perspective.

Through his professional activities, Falco works to place WPI's musical talents on display for the next generation of jazz musicians. He is a judge and clinician for the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) and the Massachusetts Music Educators for Central District and All State. He serves on the festival committee and is the host for the IAJE All State Jazz Combo and Jazz Choir Festival at WPI. Every year more than 200 of the best high school jazz students compete in front of nationally recognized judges.

Given the many ways
Falco has cultivated jazz--on and off campus--one could argue he is an improviser of the highest order. Falco shrugs off the praise. "We're trying to establish WPI as sort of a jazz center--and coming at it from a lot of different angles. It is wonderful to see the week-to-week growth of the students--their ability to manage themselves as mature musicians and to express themselves in a complex language. That is the joy of teaching, especially at a university like WPI."

-Williamson, a freelance writer and musician, is also arts editor for Worcester Magazine.

Last Updated: 7/7/99

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