Valley College Jazz concert dazzles despite personnel changes

The Matt Cory Jazz Quartet played a free show in the Music Recital Hall on March 9 at Valley College.

By Isaac Dektor, Managing Editor

(L-R) Steve Cotter, Matt Cory, Garrett Smith and Dan Schnelle perform as the Matt Cory Jazz Quartet in the Music Recital Hall of Valley College on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. The concert is the second out of 11 free performances that will be held every Wednesday until the end of the Spring 2022 semester at LAVC. (Jeremy Ruiz / The Valley Star)

If it is good enough for Stevie Wonder, then it is good enough for Valley College. A last minute change from piano to trombone left the Matt Cory Jazz quartet having to improvise, yet the four musicians did not miss a beat.

Garrett Smith, who has toured with Stevie Wonder, Christina Aguilera and other renowned musicians, took the place of pianist Josh Nelson, who could not perform due to personal reasons. Whether it was excellent sight reading, a common musical vocabulary or both, the quartet operated like a well-oiled machine despite having only an hour to rehearse. Valley’s Music Recital Hall was more than half vacant when Cory’s group took the stage, with a few stragglers taking their seats as the band leader counted out the rhythm. From the moment the first note was played, all fifteen audience members were captivated by the free show.

The quartet took questions after the show and drummer Dan Schnelle spoke about the common challenges that arise when a player has to cancel at the last minute.

“It’s always two things: we’re replacing the instrument or the person,” said Schnelle. “In this case, it was the instrument.”

Cory led the band from behind his double bass. Schnelle held down the rhythm and nearly brought down the house with two drum solos. Smith put on a show playing lead trombone while stepping aside to share the spotlight. Steve Cotter smoothly transitioned between guitar solos and accompaniment.

“With what we’re doing up here - it’s very flexible, as long as there’s music to be made,” said Cotter after the show.

The quartet’s ability to think on their feet was on display when, halfway through the show, Music Department Chair Christian Nova handed them a card with a written description, from which they improvised a song. After the show, the audience speculated about the content of the card. No one guessed that it said “a lonely owl under a crying moon.”

Cory kicked off the last song of the show, a slow ballad called “In the wee small hours,” by making his double bass sing melodically before Schnelle’s airtight drumming brought in a contagious rhythm that had audience members subconsciously tapping their feet. Cotter began playing lead guitar before seamlessly switching to accompaniment when the trombone joined the party, completing a unification of rich sounds and vibrations that bounced off the wood paneling surrounding the stage.

Cory, a music instructor at Valley College and accomplished bassist who has played with Scott Weiland and Ben Harper, brought the quartet together for Wednesday’s understated performance. Cotter has played with jazz musicians Jimmy Smith and Charles Owens. Schnelle, a USC Thornton School of Music graduate, has sat behind the kit for the likes of David Benoit, Josh Nelson and Billy Childs.

The concert was the second in a series of shows that has not been put on since March 2020, when Valley closed its campus at the start of the pandemic. Nova, the organizer of the event, opted not to put on concerts until the return to campus, as the purpose of the series is to expose students to live music.

With different performers taking the stage each week, Valley’s free spring concert series presents a wide variety of musical genres. The Kadima String Quartet will be playing on March 16 and a faculty concert will take place on March 23. All shows take place in the Music Recital Hall and are available via livestream.