AS musicians and educators, the gents in the Jost Project have a modest goal: only to turn the world on to the joys of jazz by sharing the secret code of improvisation.
"If you want to pass my improv classes, you better be sure I can always hear the original tune that you're working from," group founder/vibraphonist Tony Miceli said, with a laugh. He teaches at the University of the Arts, Temple and Curtis.
Yeah, that's the heart of jazz - working subtle variations and embellishments on a theme. And not really a mystery at all, when you know the source material and can follow the changes.
Come Friday, the wonderful, Philly-based Jost Project ensemble of Miceli, vocalist/harmonica player Paul Jost and bassist Kevin MacConnell will help listeners decipher the code in a performance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
They'll do so by sharing their intimately vocalized, exquisitely extended variations on classics like "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Walk This Way," "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and "A Whiter Shade of Pale."
"Unlike the older songbook tunes that jazz guys work with, everybody knows these classic rock songs," Miceli explained, in a recent chat. "Really, they've become the standards of today. So, when we take off on these tunes, we take you with us."
Knowing is loving
For a second master class next Wednesday at Chris' Jazz Cafe, the Jost Project will take the theme and listeners even higher in a collaborative performance with the UArts "Z" Big Band.
They'll blow up the classic rock (including Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," the Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream" and Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Karn Evil 9") with exceptionally polished big-band charts and red-hot playing, spotlighting 15 horn players plus electric guitar, keyboards, dual bassists and two alternating student drummers.
As a sort of final exam and UArts exit strategy - half the band is graduating next week - these student musicians couldn't have asked for better. So testified "Z" Big Band drummer Joe Shattls after the band's killer warm-up performance of the same material with the Jost crew last week at UArts' Caplan Recital Hall.
"I've gotta say, this is the first or second best thing I've ever been part of in my years here," Shattls said.
The grand finale at Chris' should be even hotter, added saxophonist Evan Kilgore, a UArts junior. "We won't be under the same constraint to keep the program short, as we have to . . . in our Internet-streamed school concerts." (The UArts concert can be accessed by Googling "Livestream and Caplan Recital Hall.")
The biggest issue working at the intimate Chris', Kilgore added, with a laugh, "will be fitting all the musicians on the stage. And, um, not blowing out the windows."
An inside job
All the Jost Project guys are instructors in the UArts jazz program, which helps explain how this happy collaboration was jump-started "just a couple of months ago," Miceli said.
Faculty members and school alumni, like composition chairman Evan Solot, sax department chairman Chris Farr, UArts grad Lars Halle and renowned Philly saxophonist/instructor Larry McKenna, upped the ante with truly amazing big-band charts. These arrangements would do a Gil Evans or Quincy Jones proud, and the Jost guys hope to put them to use in performances with other school bands and city orchestras here and abroad.
Based on the group's 2013 debut album, "Can't Find My Way Home," and Miceli's active online teaching presence, the Jost Project has already booked summer festival gigs as far away as South Korea.
At most music-centric universities, commingling serious jazz with commercial rock is still frowned upon, noted UArts band director Matthew Gallagher. But that's never been so at UArts, which proudly counts among its grads one of true godfathers of jazz/rock fusion, bassist Stanley Clarke, and the noted jazz/funk trombonist Robin Eubanks.
"Though we build off a jazz curriculum, we live and work in an all-styles accepted, welcomed, anything-goes musical melting pot," Gallagher explained. "Our thinking is that to make it as a working musician today, you better be versatile, diversify your portfolio."
No strangers to versatility, Miceli and Jost met as fellow bandleaders/sidemen in Atlantic City.
"Back then I knew Paul more as a great drummer and arranger," Miceli said. After hearing him sing a jazzed-up rock tune a few years ago, "I was blown away by the sensitivity and distinct personality he brought to the material. A lightbulb went off in my head that we should collaborate. . . . We've had our fights, our struggles, but the music keeps winning."
(By the way, Paul Jost released a solo album yesterday called "Breaking Through," working over jazz standards in a nonstandard way.)
In truth, the Jost Project's tactic of revisiting pop and rock tunes is a time-honored jazz tradition.
"You know, one of John Coltrane's best known performances is his rework of 'My Favorite Things' from 'The Sound of Music,' " Miceli said. "And nobody dared complain when keyboardist Bill Evans gravitated to 'Someday My Prince Will Come,' even though it was from a friggin' Disney cartoon!"