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Fascinating Rhythms

How a music school jazz ensemble will help kick off FirstWorks’ Gershwin concert

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There are so many reasons to be excited about American Rhapsody: The Gershwin Songbook, playing this month in the FirstWorks performing arts festival. The show goes on at The Vets in Providence and features the Gershwin Big Band, a touring, 17-piece ensemble of world-class musicians. The band leader is the acclaimed Broadway crooner Michael Andrew. The revue has even received the blessing of Todd Gershwin, great-nephew of George Gershwin.

But for six young musicians from the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School in East Providence, American Rhapsody is more than a high-caliber concert: it’s their chance to show off their musical skills for a roomful of connoisseurs. The six teenagers will play for about 45 minutes in the lobby before the official concert, performing a mix of Gershwin tunes and other jazz standards, while the audience mingles.

This pre-show is a major showcase for the music school – which is nationally renowned for its youth education – as well as for FirstWorks, which has been actively involved in Rhode Island schools for nearly a decade and runs a program called Arts Learning, which brings music instruction to students.

At the music school, the ensemble has been busily rehearsing since November. “I’m excited for them,” says Ron Sanfilippo, the ensemble’s music coach and a longtime nightclub performer. “A lot of students are afraid to play, because they’re afraid to sound bad. But they learn how to listen, how to support each other.”

Jazz thrives on personality, and for artists in their formative years, improvising with jazz instruments builds character like no other musical genre. Just ask Ian Banno, a 16-year-old bass player from Johnston. He’s attended the music school for six years and has played with the Symphony Orchestra and in a master class taught by Jon Batiste, bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Banno’s mother, Erin Erban, is an accomplished conductor. Gradually, Banno has shifted his focus from classical music to jazz.

“As I got older, I started to change my opinion of what music should be,” says Banno. “It should be more expressive. It should be about how you feel.” American Rhapsody: The Gershwin Songbook performs February 22, 7:30pm, at The Vets in Providence.