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Commanders Jazz Ensemble unites via video to bring 'Last Dinosaur' to life

A screenshot of a video performance of “The Last Dinosaur,” by the Commanders Jazz Ensemble was uploaded to the Band of the Golden West’s.

A video performance of “The Last Dinosaur,” by the Commanders Jazz Ensemble was uploaded to the Band of the Golden West’s Facebook page March 27. The song is an original piece that was composed by Senior Airman Ally Albrecht, U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West trumpeter. (Courtesy photo)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Physical distancing recently proved no limitation in bringing together members of the Commanders Jazz Ensemble.

The 18-member group at Travis Air Force Base, California, one of several in the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West stationed at Travis, came together via a music video posted to social media to deliver an original piece by one of its members.

A video performance of “The Last Dinosaur,” edited to include all of the group’s members, was uploaded March 27 to the band’s Facebook page.

The song, composed by Senior Airman Ally Albrecht, U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West trumpeter, is introduced by Maj. Joseph Hansen, the band’s commander.

"We have a unique capability to reach into people’s hearts through the medium of music, whether it is in the performance of a ceremony, concert, parade or other gathering," Hansen said later via email. "In the unique time of not being able to safely gather groups of people, we have had to significantly grow our video production capability. It has been a challenging and rewarding experience as we have created music videos where we tell the stories of Airmen, honor veterans who’ve come before us and reassure people across the globe that the U.S. Air Force continues to be ready for any threat."

Master Sgt. Ricky Sweum, NCO in charge of the Commanders Jazz Ensemble and administration support section chief for the band, as well as a saxophonist, said the concept was inspired by American composer and conductor Eric Whitacre's "Virtual Choir" projects. Singers record and upload videos from around the globe via their smartphones to be synchronized into a single performance.

"As Air Force musicians, our mission is to connect, honor and inspire the American people, so creating an 'at home' video performance seemed like a strong way to continue our mission under these circumstances," Sweum said.

The piece was recorded individually on the Commanders Jazz Ensemble members' 18 smartphones and then weaved together by Sweum. The video is the result of more than 40 hours of recording, coordination and effort, he said.

The production was built layer by layer. First, the drummer recorded while playing to a metronome click from earphones. This track was sent to the bassist, who built on top of that, which was combined and sent to the guitarist. Last came the centerpiece of the ensemble, the horns -- lead trumpet, lead trombone and lead saxophone players recorded their parts followed by the players in their sections.

After all the audio was mixed and mastered, the video was brought into an editing program where each individual video was synced to the final audio, Sweum said.

"Since the Covid-19 'stay home' direction hit America, some civilian music orchestras were already doing similar 'from home' video projects and I wanted to be one of the first military bands to give a product like this to our online community," Sweum said.

The ensemble intended to debut Albrecht's piece during a string of Commanders Jazz Ensemble performance in Southern California in March that were canceled due to the pandemic. The composition also was chosen to recognize National Jazz Appreciation Month in April.

"The title, 'The Last Dinosaur,' is a metaphor for the rarity and near extinction of the 18-person full-sized jazz big band," Sweum said. "In America during the swing era of the 1920s-'30s, full-sized jazz big bands were omnipresent as the popular music performance format; however, a century later in America, full-sized jazz big bands are almost extinct."

Hansen said the band intends to continue using video as a means to connect with Airmen and push the mission forward despite the challenges presented by the stay-at-home order. A video posted April 3 combined the talents of Senior Airman Mike Tuck, guitarist, and Tech. Sgt. Troy Griffen, drummer, from the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West's Mobility rock band, with Tech. Sgt. Mike Wittrien, a bassist with Max Impact, the Washington, D.C.-based rock group of The United States Air Force Band, for example.

"This has been an opportunity for us to be extra creative, both in writing and performing new music, but also in producing content meant exclusively for people’s devices," Hansen said. "In April, please watch our Facebook and Instagram pages for performances from both woodwind and brass quintets, as well as music from our pop, rock and country ensemble, Mobility. We will be releasing content each Friday, and sometimes more often. We are developing a series meant for children also, since this is the Month of the Military Child."

To see the performance of "The Last Dinosaur," visit the band's Facebook page at facebook.com/bandofthegoldenwest.

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