Share Tweet Share Email

NIU is alive with the sound of (jazz) music

September 6, 2011

Move over, Chicago. There’s a new home for jazz in Illinois.

For more than 25 years, the NIU Jazz Lab Band, or Laboratory Band, has impressed audiences both locally and internationally with award-winning performances. Now, with some help from NIU resources, the band is celebrating the release of its first album, “Quintessence.”

NIU Jazz Lab Band

The Lab Band, established in 1971, is the second of three ensembles in the NIU School of Music jazz studies program. Acting as a feeder for NIU’s world renowned Jazz Ensemble, the Lab Band covers a variety of jazz styles, fusing traditional jazz music with contemporary jazz.

NIU associate professor and Lab Band director Rodrigo Villanueva said recording an album was inevitable.

“To me, the recording of a jazz album was the natural result of the process, or momentum, the lab has been building since 2004,” Villanueva said, who has been directing the Jazz Lab since that year.

The inspiration to record the album began in the fall of 2010, when NIU alum and jazz trumpet player Rob Parton invited the Lab Band to open for his Big Band. After impressing Parton, he invited them to participate in a project with Tantara Records. Budget issues eventually cut the project short, but Villanueva was determined to continue their efforts.

“That opportunity put the seed in my mind about this album,” Villanueva said. “After talking to the School of Music’s dean, Rich Holly, I decided to try to pursue the recording with a very low budget.”

Using the money remaining in the band’s budget, Villanueva organized a fundraiser at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, featuring NIU Jazz Lab Band alumni, faculty and friends. By the end of the evening, the event raised nearly $500, enough to produce the CD.

Rodrigo Villanueva. Photo credit:

Rodrigo Villanueva. Photo credit:

Villanueva credits Rich Holly, director of NIU’s School of Music Paul Bauer, jazz studies coordinator Ron Carter and head of recording services Dan Nichols for making the project possible.

“It has been team work from the very beginning,” Villanueva said. “I just orchestrated and organized all the efforts, but thanks to many volunteers, donors and helpers, we were able to finish the project on time.”

“Quintessence” features two live tracks with Gary Smulyan, widely considered one of the world’s greatest jazz baritone saxophonists. “It really puts the project at a higher level having a legend of baritone saxophone on two cuts of the CD,” Villanueva said.

Villanueva, who said leading the band has been an opportunity for him to continue learning, enjoys seeing his students perform at a high level.

“I’m a performer, I’ve played drums professionally since I was 18 years old and, whenever a group I am involved with does well, it makes me happy,” Villanueva said. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to keep growing as a musician, performer and as a director.”

Villanueva is on sabbatical this fall in New York working on a jazz timekeeping drum set method. While there, he will tour with various groups, including a week-long tour with legendary jazz bassist Eddie Gomez.

For a copy of “Quintessence,” visit Room 140 of the Music Building between 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, or call 815-753-1552 for more information. The cost is $10. All proceeds benefit Northern Illinois University and will be used to support the NIU jazz studies program through scholarships, public performances, recordings, tours and related activities.