BERKELEY -- The student jazz ensemble known as Berkeley High School Combo cemented its up-on-a-pedestal status with a first-place combo division finish at the 2013 Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey in mid-April. After competing with 75 big bands, combos and vocal ensembles from all over the country, the "five guys from Berkeley High" came out on top and will perform with legends of the music genre at the 56th annual Monterey Jazz Festival in September.
Two combo members, tenor sax man Hugo Shiboski and pianist Michael Orenstein, received extra honors -- a full scholarship to the Lafayette Summer Music Jazz Workshop and special acknowledgment, respectively.
The combo, whose other members include Marcelo Bourque-Perez (drums), Sam Klein-Markman (guitar), Liam Collins (alto sax) and Max Schwartz (bass), is entirely self-directed.
"These kids do this on their own clock," BHS jazz director Sarah Cline says, as four of the band members give up a lunch break to chat about their recent success. Cline took up the BHS mantle in 2011, inheriting a legacy with roots dating back to 1966. And like her mentor, Phil Hardymon, a professional musician who joined Washington Elementary principal Herb Wong's visionary program nearly 50 years ago, she steps lightly and lets her students riff.
"The best thing about this year was the progress from last year," says Bourque-Perez, after being coaxed away from a nearby piano. "We were timid then, but this year, confidence had a boost."
"We were nervous," Collins admits. "But we had a solid set list and knew the form. We could go into double time, we could listen, we were in the moment."
"In the moment" is their sweet spot: it's what makes the group stand out. Individually and collectively, Cline says, they can turn a meager outline into magic, partly because of solid playing chops but also the result of hours of practice and years of performance.
All but one, 15-year old Schwartz, have been playing together since they were freshmen. Next year, when the five seniors graduate, Schwartz will be the old man in the band.
"I've got the junior combo guys I'm already playing with, though. We're gonna' be tight," he promises.
Listening to a clip from their song list, it's hard to imagine the six musicians disagreeing, Their sound is cohesive, the transitions are invisible, the groove is pure. But collectively, they laugh when asked how they solve differences.
"We do a lot of arguing," says Bourque-Perez, "it gets intense. I tried to be the ringleader once. I gave up because everyone has the right to dispute."
"Here's how it works," Collins explains, "someone will say their opinion and someone else will say, 'Nope, I don't think so.' "
"We kind of vote on it. It's democracy," Schwartz answers.
That response works for them all, and they slouch comfortably, projecting group confidence after fielding the questions as nimbly as they do intricate improvisations.
But they're tripped up by a request to describe what music represents in their lives.
Schwartz recovers first, breaking the silence to say, "Music is everything to me."
"Life without music? That would suck," Klein-Markman says. "Music is a great way to create something as a group: beautiful sounds. But I'd find some other creative things to do."
"I honestly haven't figured that out yet, Bourque-Perez says, "but I'm thinking about it. I want to figure that out. Right now, I'm just doing it because I enjoy it."
Their musical heroes are an easier subject to tap into. Collins chases the Bill Evans Trio's infinite ideas. Bourque-Perez hears echoes of the Miles Davis 1960s Quintet when he is playing and finds spontaneity. And Schwartz says Oscar Peterson's music "just feels so good" he listens to it for hours at a time.
Asked what they will perform in the fall, they look at each other for clues. Eventually, they shrug in unison and Collins says, "We have no idea."
Whatever the song list, it's likely to include Klein-Markman's "Get Off My Lawn," an aggressive, richly textured composition he says is supposed to "hit you from the beginning" and offer "surprises."