Feb 02, 2017 10:19AM ● Published by Ashley Pape
Out of hundreds of high school tenor saxophonists, 52 qualified to audition for the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) All-State music group last fall. From this audition, Cantrell and James were selected as No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in a blind audition, landing these Dragons the highest recognition Texas music students can receive.
There must be something in the water—or at least the water fountains outside the Carroll band hall. Dragons have claimed the top two spots for tenor saxophone for two consecutive years.
Cantrell, who also auditioned as one of the state’s top two tenor saxophonists in 2015, is happy to be back in the spotlight. He says, “It’s a great honor and a really great feeling.”
For James, landing the No. 2 audition spot was an honor achieved much sooner than he ever imagined. “Finding out was pretty surreal,” he says. “I had my sights set for State as a long-term goal. I never expected success would come so early.”
Throw in some friendly competition along with the Dragon spirit of excellence, and there’s no stopping Cantrell and James. But rather than become embattled, the students encourage each other to improve their musical game. The only question is, which of these up-and-coming saxophonists will be next to rise to the top?
FINE-TUNING MUSICAL TALENT
Cantrell and James are part of a jazz program chockfull of skilled musicians, many of whom have also received impressive honors and accolades. Chalk it up to the students’ raw talent and steadfast determination—and also the fact that Carroll boasts one of the state’s best jazz programs. While most high schools in Texas offer jazz as an extracurricular activity after school, Carroll offers jazz during the school day through multiple classes.
“We are so much more supported by our administration in that we have three jazz band classes, which is absolutely unheard of,” says David Lown, director of jazz bands at Carroll. “Most high schools in Texas are lucky if they have a single class.”
Not only does Carroll give students opportunities to perfect their skills during the school day, but the jazz program is audition-only; it’s open to only the best budding musicians. The audition-only aspect gives the program an elite feel, which is right in line with why Cantrell and James chose to play their instruments. When only a select few jazz students make the cut, it undoubtedly gives them more notoriety.
Lown conducts auditions every May, and about 20 students are selected to each class based on skill level. In each class, students work on improvisation, which is composing music spontaneously. “Improvisation is challenging,” says Lown, “and we work on it incredibly hard.”
But no matter how many notes they play and standards they learn, jazz students gain much more than musical knowledge. “Mr. Lown applies lessons that transcend beyond the band,” says Cantrell. “He shows us how we should act as people. He’s a great influence to all of us.”
James says Lown is a personal mentor and counts him among the people who have impacted his life the most. “All the hours Mr. Lown inspires me to dedicate to this craft has shaped my character for the better. The pursuance of jazz has inspired curiosity, humility and a very hard work ethic, all which will benefit me in the long run,” he says. “I can’t believe how lucky I am to go [to Carroll]. It doesn’t get any more fortunate than this.”
THE ROAD TO STATE … AND BEYOND
Whether they’re working on their improvisation skills or etudes (short musical compositions to improve technique) or learning jazz vocab from a recording, Lown says Cantrell and James have “an intrinsic motivation to keep working harder.”
After school, both students carve out time to play the sax while still balancing schoolwork and other responsibilities. “I try to get my horn on my face for at least 30 minutes to two hours every day,” says Cantrell.
James will play the sax for as long as possible before going to bed at a reasonable hour, which for him is midnight. “It can be later sometimes,” he admits, “but I have control that it doesn’t get much later than that.”
This month, these All-State students will head to San Antonio for the annual TMEA Clinic and Convention, one of the largest music conventions in the country. They’ll have the opportunity to work with Denis DiBlasio, an international clinician and performer, before taking to the stage to perform before thousands of attendees.
Lown has no doubt they’ll be great. “For All-State jazz, they just need to make sure they’re prepared. They will be,” he says. “They’re competitive, but in a positive way. They want to outdo each other, but they push each other to be better. They’ve actually become really good friends.”
“There’s totally a vibe that everything I play he’s trying to be better than me and vice versa,” Cantrell says. “I’m not trying to beat him. I’m trying to push myself. Brendan is one of my closest friends.”
James agrees there’s definitely a motivating factor in the rivalry—and the friendship. “Getting to share my passion for music with someone of better caliber is definitely great luck for me. It helps me with my playing. I’m going to catch him, though,” he adds.
Last year, Lown watched the same friendly competition unfold between Cantrell and Will Nathman, one of Southlake Style’s “Five Ones to Watch” in 2016. Nathman currently studies in the prestigious jazz program at the University of North Texas. He’s one of many Carroll jazz students who have gone on to study jazz at top schools such as Berklee College of Music and the University of Southern California.
There’s no doubt the Carroll jazz program is top tier—especially the elite jazz group, the Carroll Jazz Orchestra, of which Cantrell and James are members. This all-star group performed as a finalist in 2007, 2010 and 2014 at the prestigious Essentially Ellington Competition and Festival in New York, which Lown calls “the Super Bowl of jazz competitions.”
Lown has his sights on returning to the Big Apple in May. “We really want to go back. It’s our big goal,” he says. Aside from striving to make it to New York, jazz students have a busy spring ahead. They’ll play at the 43rd annual UT Arlington Jazz Festival later this month, and in March they’ll play at the eighth-annual APEX Jazz Festival presented by the APEX Arts League.
No matter the competition or event, though, for jazz students to take their musical game to the top, Lown says it requires “an absolute determination and a diligence to succeed.” Sounds like James and Cantrell have exactly what it takes.