Jackson Wu and his guitar

Jackson Wu, a jazz guitarist from Needham, Massachusetts, will take the stage on March 2, at 7:00 pm at Oberlin’s Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse for his Junior Recital. A double degree student in the College and Conservatory, Wu is pursuing his studies in Computer Science, as well as Jazz Guitar under the mentorship of Bobby Ferrazza.

Wu’s extravagant program will include a wide range of genres, featuring works by Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner, Johnny Mandel, and Wu himself. He will be joined by his quintet, Noah Kawaguchi on tenor sax, Abe Gold on piano, Kamran Curlin on bass, and Tim Voet on drums. 

Cedar Walton’s jazz standard, Bolivia, opens the program. One of the most valued of all hard-bop pianists, Walton brings cogent and inventive melodies with a funky touch to all the instruments. Wu describes the structure of this piece as, “Two different sections that contrast with each other and keep repeating. When you improvise over it, it gives you a lot of ideas. There’s a section with really fast changes, giving it a lot of energy. Then there’s a modal section where the pace slows down, giving us the opportunity to have fun with the improvisation, complementing each other’s voices.”

A genre based on improvisation, jazz requires considerable attentive skills and instinctive creativity within a microsecond. It’s about making something familiar — a tune that everyone knows — into something fresh, yet personal and intimate to the musician. “There’s not much decision making when it comes to how I improvise,” Wu said. “I just hear how everyone is playing and I go along with it. We all start off with a strong idea, which is what happens when it’s going well, and then we hold on to that idea. The music just happens naturally.”

The playlist will shift the mood of the evening into the blues with McCoy Tyner’s Blues on the Corner. Tyner is heralded as one of the most important jazz pianists of the past 50 years for his work with the John Coltrane Quartet, as well as his solo leadership. His chord voicings and percussive melodies infuse his compositions with emotional force, and have influenced his countless followers. “I want to work on a strong melody that fills the musical vocabulary,” Wu said. His heartfelt blues promises to take you back in time to a New York jazz club in the 70s, sipping on fine whiskey.

Describing the inspiration for his Herbes de Provence, Wu said, “I was thinking of Mumbo UK, and I started playing around with the energy and how it feels. I then turned this into a seven-bar, AABA composition. The title just came to me one night in the Kohl Building.” 

Wu explained how that jazz can be planned, but also free minded. Although there is a framework to the piece, the improvisation is what gives the music personality and the hint of spice that can only be experienced onstage.

“I want people to be inspired to feel a free flow because the beat, the melody is constantly stepping ahead of itself. It gets you into feeling the groove,” Wu said, adding that “This is the final incarnation. I made the first draft in one night, but I’ve been revising it a lot since the fall of sophomore year.”

The evening will close with Wu’s arrangement of Johnny Mandel’s Emily. Wu said he was inspired by Bill Evans’ version, and wanted to try out something different with it. “I explored the three-chord vamp — the idea where three chords repeat as a starting point. I was also inspired by Mick Goodrick, a great guitar teacher and player. His exhaustive books taught me how to voice lead and create a cycle of chords. I take the cycle but change it every time by fifths. This arrangement will be exploring those sounds over the tune.”

This concert is an evening you should not miss. The raw power of the lyrics and rhythms captures the spirit of Jackson Wu’s edgy, yet thoughtful prowess. “If people are wondering how I’m doing, or if you’ve seen me once at DeCafe, come out and see how I’m doing!” Wu said with a wholehearted laugh, adding that, “This recital is a sense of how far I’ve come. The improvement at my instrument, but also my life, growth, and maturity as a person. I want the audience to leave with a pleasant feeling.”

Join the concert via this livestream link. Jackson Wu’s Junior Recital, March 2, at 7:00 pm at the Cat and the Cream Coffeehouse.