Jordan VanHemert | I Am Not a Virus Review
by Stamish Malcuss
Jordan VanHemert is a Michigan-based saxophonist and composer that is creating modern jazz shaped by his political mindfulness and issues of race and social justice. VanHemert is an Assistant Professor of Music Instruction in saxophone and jazz studies at Hope College and is also the Music Director of the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to jazz advocacy, education, and performance. VanHemert is a working composer that has been commissioned by ensembles across the country, including works for the Zenith Saxophone Quartet, Friends University Vocal Jazz Ensemble, the Bradley University Jazz Ensemble, Greenhill (TX) School Flute Choir, and many others. He holds degrees from Central Michigan University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. VanHemert is now releasing his debut album titled I Am Not a Virus on Big Round Records. Joining the Korean-American is trumpeter Rob Smith, pianist Lisa Sung, bassist Kazuki Takemura, and drummer Andy Wheelock. The album presents six VanHemert originals and a traditional Korean melody.
“Autumn Song” opens with a bass figure to establish the gentile modern jazz feel. The two horns play a satisfying flowing melody. VanHemert’s solo digs into the waltz time with a firm foundation in jazz’s history but still very modern in his harmonic devices. Smith’s solo is melodic and focuses on motifs and their development. Wheelock and Takemura create a big pocket for the soloist. Sung’s solo is expertly executed, but the piano should have been prepared better before recording, as its tuning could be better. “Autumn Song” shows VanHemert is an accomplished composer and performer leading an exceptionally talented ensemble of players.
“Justice for the Unarmed (Black Lives Matter)” has a wonderful melody and up-tempo swing feel. The title obviously displays VanHemert’s compositional voice to address issues of race and social justice. VanHemert finds inspiration for the energy of the song in the injustice of racism and xenophobia. The music may be conceived with thoughts of Black Lives Matter protests, but the music itself is joyous and very enjoyable. VanHemert’s duet with Wheelock really spotlights his playing personality, tone, and grace in conceiving musical ideas. The tune is a highlight on the album; though the title and inspiration are unrestful, the music is focused, clear, and swinging.
I Am Not a Virus is filled with VanHemert pushing himself as a writer, performer, and leader. The inspiration behind each song is a bit of a story of VanHemert’s musical retort to racism and the unjust hostility toward Asian-Americans amid a global pandemic. The music flows like a healthy cathartic act from VanHemert and comes across as creative, grounded, and strikingly passionate.