BRATTLEBORO—Some things defy categorizing.
Take for instance The Convergence Project.
Led by composer and pianist Eugene Uman, this sextet is an eclectic mix of extraordinary musicians, and each brings individual influences and flavors to Uman’s richly spiced compositions. The Convergence Project concert will take place on Saturday, June 9, at 8 p.m., at the Vermont Jazz Center at the Cotton Mill.
Uman, the artistic director of the Vermont Jazz Center (VJC), says he put together the sextet to interpret his compositions. He intended to use the vocabulary of jazz in his pieces, he said, while using rock music, and feeling the inspiration of Colombian folkloric rhythms.
In putting together the Convergence Project, Uman said he was “looking for a situation in which I could effectively express all the styles that influence my composition.”
And he was successful. “All the musicians I found complement that objective,” he said.
The Convergence Project has performed together as a group for nearly four years, sometimes with different personnel combinations. Joining Uman for the June 9 VJC concert will be:
• The Takeishi brothers — Stomu on bass and Satoshi on drums and percussion. They are a powerful rhythmic duo and a force in the New York City jazz and world-music scene.
• Michael Zsoldos playing saxophones (alto, soprano and tenor). He is a well traveled musical innovator and educator who has performed with music legends.
• Jeff Galindo on trombone, a highly sought jazz artist and assistant professor at Berklee College of Music who has performed with a long list of jazz greats.
• Sebastián Cruz, a guitarist and composer who blends elements of his Colombian roots with the urban grain of his current home, New York City.
Nonetheless, the central driving force behind the Convergence Project is, without a doubt, Eugene Uman.
Uman has written more than 120 jazz compositions arranged for various musical ensembles ranging from big band and world music ensembles to rock ’n’ roll. Uman’s music draws from many styles and forms: an underpinning of jazz, Latin rhythms from Colombia, and the driving energy of rock.
Jazz takes precedence
First, and probably most important, is jazz. In Southern Vermont, Uman is considered something of a civic treasure because of his inspired leadership of the Vermont Jazz Center.
Uman has been the VJC’s director since 1997, when its founder, the legendary guitarist Attila Zoller, asked him if he would take over the center’s administrative arm. Jazz musician Draa Hobbs, who has been associated with VJC since its beginnings, said that while Zoller was the founder with the vision, it was Uman who got VJC on sound footing, establishing it in a permanent residence rather than fly-by-night venues, and enabled the center to grow into the institution it is today.
During Uman’s tenure, the VJC has grown into an esteemed concert venue where performances by internationally recognized jazz artists are complemented by community outreach and educational programs, including a renowned summer jazz workshop that attracts students from around the world. Uman has produced more than 160 concerts for the center with many notable artists.
Education is an important component of VJC, said Uman, who is also the educational director. The organization is home to an expanded program with half a dozen year-round instructors.
Uman said his goal as a teacher is to help students realize their creative potential and ultimately find their own voice.
Love of Latin
He gained his teaching experience developing jazz programs in Colombia, and that experience had a profound impact on his musical development.
Uman and his wife, who is Colombian, lived in Medellin between 1994 and 1997, where their two children were born. The city has had a reputation of being one of the most violent cities in the world, the result of the long-running drug wars between rival cartels in the 1980s and 1990s.
“The city could be quite dangerous,” Uman says, “but if you stayed out of those circles, you could remain pretty safe. Yet there are so many wonderful people who live there, and I really love Colombia.”
Uman offered classes in jazz at a private music school and two universities. By the end of his stay, he was leading eight jazz ensembles, and was teaching jazz composition, jazz theory, jazz history, and music appreciation.
“Living in Colombia was an opportunity for me as a musician,” Uman said.
“I was not just teaching, I was learning. I was given so much from Colombian culture, and I felt the desire to give back,” he said. “Surrounded by their incredible music driven by intriguing rhythms, I became eager to adopt what I was hearing to jazz. So I hired a folklorist percussionist in Colombia to lay down the essential popular folklore rhythms from which I could work into my compositions.”
Rock ’n’ roll roots
The third influence on Uman’s compositions for The Convergence Project is in some ways the most surprising: rock. But that too has played an important part in his biography.
“When I was in college in central Vermont, I helped form a fantastic rock band called Dr. Burma,” he says. “We were very successful. For several years, we performed most every weekend at bars and private functions. Although I subsequently moved on to other things, the band still thrives today.”
Dr. Burma found inspiration in performers from soul demigods James Brown and Aretha Franklin, to the Southern-fried rock of Little Feat, “It was great to improvise and rile up dancers to an exotic experience,” he says, “I want to bring that visceral experience of rock to jazz.”