Students in the Menomonie High School Jazz Ensemble I know they’ll be playing with an acclaimed professional musician Monday when saxophonist Kenni Holmen joins them for a day of teaching and performing.
But, director of bands Jake Karkula said, whatever their expectations are, they will fall short of the actual experience.
“Kind of like getting ready to get on a fun ride at Valley Fair — the big roller coaster that looks like it’s going to be a blast but they don’t really know what it’s going to feel like until they’re on it,” he said.
Holmen will work with the school’s young musicians during the day and then join Jazz I in a performance at Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts in Menomonie.
It’s part of Karkula’s annual tradition of bringing in highly talented professionals to work with his students. The Twin Cities-based Holmen has visited before, and others who have appeared are trumpeter Robert Baca, director of jazz studies at UW-Eau Claire, and saxophonist Sue Orfield, a Chippewa Valley resident whose career includes leading her own group and performing with many other musicians, including those of national renown.
Preparation for the concert is a lot of work for the students, Karkula acknowledged.
“I think they feel a little overwhelmed at times getting ready for the concert,” Karkula said.
“And I think they’re looking forward to playing with a great musician because we do this every year, and they know whoever I bring in is going to be great and they’re going to be fun to work with. But I don’t think they quite realize how great of a concert this is going to be and how inspired they’re going to be until it actually happens.”
Holmen’s career offers plenty to prompt inspiration. To offer a partial list, he has performed with Prince, Stevie Wonder, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, Doc Severinsen, Garrison Keillor, Reba McEntire, the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He has recorded with Janet Jackson, Rod Stewart, Prince, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan and the Jonas Brothers.
Holmen also is featured with Hornheads, a group comprising Prince’s horn section that has toured throughout the U.S., Europe and South America.
After Holmen arrives earlier in the day, the musicians will rehearse for about three to four hours with Jazz I, Karkula said. Depending on schedules, he said, Holmen also might lead some master classes with the students.
Part of the thrill of the event, Karkula said, is the opportunity to perform at the ornate Mabel Tainter.
“It’s a great theater,” he said. “It feels like you’re stepping back in time 100 years. It’s pretty neat. We’re really lucky to have that theater in town.”
Karkula gave brief descriptions of the program featuring Holmen with MHS Jazz I:
• The Christian song “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love.” Holmen arranged it for a church.
“Kenni basically said the congregation kind thought they were going to her the traditional version of it, but it turns out to be a real uptempo barnburner of a tune that’s really exciting.”
• A rocking song by Dave Wolpe called “Apple Strudel and Cheese.”
• The standard “Georgia on My Mind,” arranged by Russ Peterson.
“It’s a really neat tune and has some uptempo parts as well, which you don’t always hear from that tune.”
• “Ballade” by Rick Cornish.
“I believe Kenni will be playing soprano sax on that one.”
The concert will be “a lot of fun,” Karkula said, but the 10 or 11 canceled rehearsals because of weather and other factors have added to challenges of preparations.
Describing Holmen as a “monstrous saxophone player,” Karkula said his abilities continually impress him.
“Every time I bring him in and he starts to play his saxophone, and I’m a saxophone player myself ... I’m amazed at what he’s able to do on that instrument,” he said.
Holmen also serves as a model for students because of his reliability, Karkula added.
“It’s fun to hear him play, but I also know when I email him I’m going to hear back from him in a day, he’s going to be there on time, and when we talk about music he’s going to have good suggestions that work out well with my groups and he’s going to be efficient too,” he said “There’s the musicianship side of things, which he’s fantastic with, but there’s also the professionalism side as well.”
Sponsors of the event are Schmitt Music (Travis Christopherson manages the Eau Claire location), Chippewa Valley Band Instrument Repair (in Schmitt Music — owned by Jeff Reitz) and the Madison Jazz Society.