Thesis Spotlight: Lebovitz Resurrects the Energy of Big Band Jazz

Thesis Spotlight: Lebovitz Resurrects the Energy of Big Band Jazz

This Friday at 7 p.m, Lucas Lebovitz ’15 will take the stage of Buckley Recital Hall to present a showcase of contemporary classical and jazz music as part of the senior thesis presentation, “The Jukebox.” Lebovitz invites the audience on a journey through sounds of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The concert will spotlight the original compositions of Lebovitz, which he will perform alongside the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble, in an effort to journey back to the golden age of big band jazz. The performance seeks to pay tribute to notable icons of one of the most widespread forms of popular music in history. Following the act will be a performance by Albert Joo ‘15 that explores the combination between traditional acoustic sounds and the popular electronic sounds of today by utilizing the elements of music that create depth and complexity.

I had the chance to sit down with Lebovitz to learn more about his senior thesis project. The Los Angeles native is a double major in music and neuroscience. He said his desire to go to medical school was his motivation for majoring in neuroscience, while his decision to major in music stemmed from a desire to continually enjoy himself amidst the notable neuroscience workload.

As a prospective music major, Lebovitz began with the introductory courses that focus on music literacy. These courses were followed by classes geared toward history, culture, theory and analysis. The courses aim to impart the ability of writing and thinking critically about music while encouraging the appreciation of the cultural and historical trajectory of tonal music.

Lebovitz arrived at Amherst an experienced player of classical piano and bassoon, but he said he has since been able to enjoy pursuing a newfound passion for jazz. Lebovitz said his interest in jazz was stoked by Amherst faculty members such as conductor Bruce Diehl. He knew early on that he wanted to do a senior music thesis, and went into junior year knowing he wanted to do something involving the art of composition and jazz. Ultimately, he came to hone in on big band, a percussion, bass, and woodwind jazz music collaboration originated in the U.S in the 1920s. Lebovitz had some prior formal instruction from a half-credit course he took that focused on writing and arranging music for the ensemble.

“I started casually listening to things I hadn’t been listening to that seriously, and started developing an understand of how it worked,” Lebovitz said. “I came to love how diverse of things you can write for that many instruments and the diversity of sounds that can come about, but more so how deep the cultural influence is and how entrenched the history is behind it. I started listening to important bands from different times, and I could pick from those to get a cool style.”

The goal of the project is to write original music to authentically replicate and honor specific bands and times of the big band genre. Lebovitz said he aims to cover the bases of big band composition between 1930 and 1960 by analyzing the music of specific musicians who made huge influences throughout the era and applying it to the composition of his own original songs. “My fascination with it is that it is so easy to be passionate about researching things I can write authentically for,” he said.

Lebovitz said the writing process began over the summer and concluded about three weeks ago. The band will be performing about half an hour’s worth of music, cut down from the original 40 written by Lebovitz.

“It took much longer to decide how to write than to actually write,” Lebovitz said. “Because they’re such big scores, it can take up to a month to just get through one song by one band and really understand how each was doing what it was doing. The styles are also so different, so it takes me a while to get used to each one.”

Lebovitz talks about a newfound passion for analyzing music, contrary to the belief popularly held amongst musicians that taking apart a piece of art and breaking it up into its constituents strips it of its beauty

“Overanalyzing anything can be somewhat rote, but that tends to happen when people aren’t looking for something specific,” Leibovitz said. “To take something I love and break it down, and I understand it better having broken it down, it always makes me appreciate it more.”

The biggest challenge Lebovitz said he faced along the process has been teaching the band the original music. He described the inherent bridge between how a composer imagines his written music to sound and how it actually sounds listening to someone else play their music.

“There are tons of times, especially this early, that the band will play the music and I hear it and say ‘that’s not what I’m hearing in my head,’ but there are times when the band will pick it up and play it 10 times better than I would have ever expected,” he said. “When I give it to somebody and they interpret it in a way I never imagined, everything comes to life.”

After graduation, Lebovitz will be taking a year to volunteer in a hospital, during which he will have some time to practice his playing.

“There will always be people to play with, especially in medical school where there is a big cross-over [with medical students and musicians], but fortunately I play the piano — an instrument I can play by myself happily,” Leibovitz said.

“I won’t really be able to have the opportunity to pursue music in the depth that I would like for a long time. So having an amazing recording and music experience of one huge project will be something I can carry with me for a long time.”