The Nation’s Best: Lawrence University Musicians Earn Top Honors from DownBeat Magazine

APPLETON, WIS. — One is fun. Two is twice as nice.

Two distinctly different sets of Lawrence University musicians have been honored as the nation’s best by DownBeat magazine in its 32nd annual student music awards competition.

The Lawrence University Wind Ensemble, under the direction of assistant professor of music Andy Mast, was named the winner in the classical group division, which encompasses chamber ensembles, bands and orchestras from around the country. The seven-member student band Fatbook shared top honors with the Funk Fusion Ensemble of the University of Miami in the magazine’s blues/pop/rock category as the nation’s best college band.

Winners will be announced in DownBeat’s upcoming June edition, which hits newsstands on May 19. Known as “DBs” and presented in 15 categories in four separate divisions (junior high, high school, performing high school and college) the DownBeat awards are considered among the highest music honors in the field of jazz education.

The two latest awards push Lawrence’s DB total to 15 since the competition was launched in 1978, and the college’s fifth DB since 2005.

“What a thrill,” said Mast. “I really had no idea what our chances would be, so it was very exciting to receive the news of this honor. I’m proud to be associated with the ensemble.”

The audition CD Mast submitted for the competition was a collection of pieces performed in concerts in the winter and spring of 2008 and the fall of 2008.

“There really are two groups of students who contributed to winning this award,” said Mast. “It’s so gratifying to have the ensemble students recognized like this because they so richly deserve it. They work incredibly hard, are extremely dedicated to being the best musicians they can be and are a true privilege to work with.

“The external recognition is certainly great because it shines a national spotlight on Lawrence as the first-rate school that it is,” Mast added, “but I am even happier for the internal satisfaction this brings the students who work so hard on a daily basis to make it that way.”

Fatbook, which started out strictly as a reggae band in the fall of 2007, becomes a footnote in Lawrence history as the college’s first non-curricular ensemble to be recognized by DownBeat.

The band features three home-grown musicians — senior Harjinder Bedi, lead vocals and guitar, junior Jake Crowe, tenor saxophone and Ted Toussaint, trumpet, all from Appleton — as well as senior Nick Anderson, bass, from Verona, Wis., senior Evan Jacobson, trombone, from Oak Park, Ill., junior Dario LaPoma, piano, from Eugene, Ore., and senior Kyle Traska, drums/ percussion, from Oregon, Wis.

While Fatbook musical style has evolved into a more diverse sound, it hasn’t completely abandoned its original sound and reggae remains a central influence on the band.

“We don’t like to categorize ourselves in any one genre of music. We like to draw on a wide variety of influences, including rock, pop, jazz, reggae and even a little bit of hip-hop,” said Jacobson.

Fatbook’s entry in DownBeat’s student music awards competition was a disc of three original compositions. They will be releasing their first CD, “No Time to Lose,” a 10-track disc of all original material, later this month.

According to Toussaint, much of the original material they perform is a result of “shared composition.”

“Someone will suggest a core idea, but we’ll flesh it out together as a group,” said Toussaint. “All the guys in the band listen to and participate in a wide range of musical styles, so we naturally bring that diversity to the table.”

The band, which also performs cover material ranging from The Police to Bela Fleck to Bob Marley, has made inroads in the local club scene, performing at such area venues as Mill Creek Blues, Stone Cellar Brewery and Cranky Pat’s.

Fred Sturm, director of jazz and improvisational music at Lawrence, has served as a mentor to the fledgling band and has watched with pride as they’ve evolved.

“These are all talented young musicians who are beginning to realize some of their musical dreams while still college students. That’s a thrill to witness,” said Sturm. “They’re striving to establish a unique musical identity and they’ve got enormous heart for the task of making it all happen. Earning a DownBeat award is a great first step for them.”

This year’s DownBeat competition drew a total of 832 ensemble and individual entries for all categories in all four divisions.