Joey Brink’s “Bell Jazz” Brings standards (and more) from the songbook to the tower

By Corey Hall

IN THE BEGINNING – JULY 25, 1964, TO be exact – Brazilian samba singer Astrud Gilberto and saxophonist Stan Getz brought “The Girl from Ipanema” to life, and the world watched in wonder. This highly-respected performance, from an album that also featured guitarist Joao Gilberto (Astrud’s husband), has since been covered by Herb Alpert, Amy Winehouse, and Lou Rawls, among several others.

At the 2017 Hyde Park Jazz Festival, Joey Brink climbed the 271 stairs leading up to the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel’s tower, sat down in front of a 100-ton instrument called the carillon, and opened his “Bell Jazz” performance with this Antonio Carlos Jobim composition. As Brink’s fists forcefully pressed the large, pedal-like levers on the keyboard, the selected bell responded. The Rockefeller Chapel carillon (located at 5850 South Woodlawn) has 72 bells. By weight, it is the world’s second largest; by number of bells, it is the world’s third largest. The biggest bell played by this carillon weighs 36,926 pounds; the smallest bell weighs 10.5 pounds.

“I grew up playing jazz piano,” Brink told the JazzGram after his performance. “My trio would play ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ quite often. “It’s so cool to be up in the tower in front of the keyboard. You make one note, make a sound on a bell, and everybody on campus within a quarter-mile radius can hear it,” said Brink, who began as the University Carillonneur in 2015. He and his students perform on the carillon Monday through Friday at noon and 5 p.m. “That’s a lot of responsibility, too, because you don’t want to play poorly or play music no one likes.”

“Bell Jazz” featured the standards “As Time Goes By,” from Casablanca, and “All That Jazz,” from Chicago. Brink also presented his arrangement of Scott Joplin’s “Solace: A Mexican Serenade,” and John Abercrombie’s “Remember Hymn.” “The Abercrombie song is one of my favorite avant-garde jazz standards,” said Brink, who cites Vince Guaraldi’s trio as an early influence. “I really like playing it, because, at the end, the power comes in with the low bells. It makes a morose, eerie sound that gives me chills.” Brink – whose first exposure to the carillon happened ten years ago while attending Yale – enjoys the challenges that Joplin’s ragtime compositions present. “Solace,” composed in 1909, is a slower-paced composition. “This is my favorite Joplin song. It’s different from his other works,” Brink said. “It’s not that playing fast is difficult or impossible on the carillon. It’s possible, but with some of Joplin’s faster ragtime pieces, there would be more blending and muddiness, as the bells continuously ring.”

To challenge the 100-plus listeners on the chapel’s lawn, Brink also performed two compositions for carillon and electronics. To perform these songs – “Square Prayer,” by Renske Vrolijik, and “Tempo di Mare,” by Ad Wammes – he put on headphones. “The headphones were playing click tracks. I could hear a metronome in my head,” Brink explained. “For some of ‘Tempo di Mare,’ the composer’s voice was in my head. It helped me know where I was at in the piece, how fast to go, and how to sync up.” While Brink performed, Elizabeth Davenport, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel, distributed performance programs. She found Brink’s carillon/electronics fusion inspiring. “I really liked the way he drew upon the bells and the way the electronics complemented them,” she said. “The composition’s structure – from lively to reflective back into another lively section – was almost symphonic in the way it was constructed.”

Brink’s expertise and openness to multiple styles make him valuable, Davenport continued. She noted that when Prince died on April 21, 2016, Brink performed “Purple Rain” and three other songs by the pop music icon within two hours of the news going public. “There is a lot of improvisation that can be done on the carillon,” Davenport added. “We hope that Joey can do this more on the jazz scene, even though he can’t pick up a 100-ton instrument and take it to a nightclub. “The bells are a big part of Hyde Park’s music scene, because they create the ambiance of the university and surrounding streets,” she continued. “To incorporate the bells into the Jazz Fest was a very exciting match for us.”

Published in the December 2017 JazzGram newsletter from the Jazz Institute of Chicago.