Friday, April 8th was one of this spring’s first truly “outdoor” days. In the afternoon, the sun was out, and, at least according to Apple’s Weather app, New Haven was a perfectly respectable 56 degrees. So it’s no wonder that a crowd of brochure-ready students, complete with picnic blankets, frisbees, and a mysterious cat on a leash, converged on Cross Campus after classes. But that afternoon, something else drew the ears of cross campus attendees toward the friendly eyes of the Sterling tower: the delightfully smooth instrumental jazz stylings of The Next Big Thing.
I decided to meet with The Next Big Thing a few days after the concert to ask them a few questions about the concert, their music, and their plans for the future. Unfortunately, Caleb Reske DC ‘25, Nora Hylton BC ‘25, and Max Walker BC ‘25 (guitar, bass, and alto saxophone, respectively) were unable to join us, but I did hear from Max Su SY ‘25, Etai Smotrich-Barr DC ‘25, and Andrew Wang BC ‘25 (drums, piano/keys, trumpet).
Putting together The Next Big Thing
Unfortunately for the jazz enthusiasts among my readers, cohesive sextets (or quintets, since Reske was not able to play last Friday) don’t just form autochthonously from the grass on Cross Campus whenever the weather reaches an acceptable degree of warmth, so I decided to investigate how The Next Big Thing came together. “It was kind of a collection of friends we had made over the course of first semester,” said Smotrich-Barr. He continued: “I had met Max Walker at a Slifka service, and toward the end of first semester [he] came up to me and said, ‘Alright, I’ve got the bass player, which means I’ve got the band. This is going to be the next big thing in jazz.’” I couldn’t have scripted it better if I tried.
But jazz wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice for all the band’s members. Though most of the group has plenty of jazz experience, Su’s own background is almost entirely classical. “I played some drum set in middle school,” he told me, but “I never really played jazz… I was always a classical percussionist.” Su also spoke about the group’s welcoming environment: “Playing the gig on Cross Campus, I was a little nervous at the beginning… but it’s been great. These guys have accepted me as a half-jazz musician.” Although playing in a jazz ensemble was something new for Su, some of the band’s other members have deeply personal connections to jazz music. Wang cited his older brother as the main reason he plays music today. “He’s 11 years older than me, so I always looked up to him a lot. He played both piano and trumpet. So when I was six years old, I was like, mom, please, I want to learn!”
I wanted to understand what had possessed the group to decide to perform in front of all those people on Cross Campus. It turns out that The Next Big Thing did not start out with an eye toward being a proper band that plays gigs and performs, lending their name a sprinkle of delicious ironic humor. “It was more just like friends getting together to make music,” said Wang before Smotrich-Barr chimed in: “[W]e didn’t start with performance, we started with, ‘How can we get together and play music?’ [That] morphed into ‘Hey… we should find a way to perform this.’”
And perform they did! After about 45 minutes setting up equipment and paying an obligatory visit to the bouncy house in the Berkeley South courtyard, they started to play the Joe Zawinul-composed “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” off Cannonball Adderley’s album Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at “The Club.” Slowly the crowd turned to face the band, which had set up in the corner of Cross Campus nearest to the Women’s Table, right by the gate to Berkeley South. For an hour, the group smoothly ran through their program: “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” was followed by “Straight No Chaser,” then “Afro Blue,” “Autumn Leaves,” “All The Things You Are,” and “My Little Suede Shoes.” Despite calls for an encore from the pleased audience, the members packed it up and went home after their set. “[Playing] was really nice,” noted Smotrich-Barr. “I don’t have a lot of fun in performance halls doing that kind of performance. I have a lot of fun playing music with people and for people, in a more casual way.” Some of the audience members were friends who had come explicitly to see the band play: “Max Walker’s parents even came, so that was really nice,” explained Wang. When asked for comment on how he felt about the atmosphere on Cross Campus, the ever-verbose Max Su added: “It was cool.”
The musicians even shared some insights on how the vibe in the practice room lent itself to the vibe that Friday afternoon on Cross Campus. Su noted, once again, that he had been a little unsure of what to do as a jazz drummer, but also that playing with The Next Big Thing, he had discovered “a new side of music-making.” “Jazz in and of itself, it’s very much a communicative art, [so] we really get to learn a lot about each other while we’re playing,” Wang added. Smotrich-Barr drove the point home with a neat anecdote: “Andrew probably has the best ear of anyone I’ve ever met in person. I’ll be playing something on the piano and I’ll hear a little mockingbird in the background parroting my notes… I think the thing that drew us together as a band was the communal aspect.” The same, I assume, goes for Cross Campus; this band that plays together for the joys of collaboration certainly produced a little bit of that joy for the community on Cross Campus.
Becoming The Big Thing?
When I asked about their future plans, the group seemed more laid-back than I had anticipated. “It’s hard to say [what’s next],” Smotrich-Barr told me, “because I think… perhaps we’re past our inflection point in the semester.” (Don’t worry, none of his bandmates knew what he meant either.) “We didn’t start as a performance group, so I’m really proud and happy that we decided to go out there and perform. Hopefully we’ll even get another gig in there before the end of the year, but it’s unclear. Either way, I have a feeling that I will certainly be playing with these people long into the future,” Smotrich-Barr said. The next big thing in jazz is big on winging it.
As sweet as Smotrich-Barr’s comments were, I found that Wang’s and Su’s remarks perfectly encapsulated the group’s ethos. “I’m just here to play drums. Just hit things, that’s it,” said Su. “That’s okay, I just blow air,” replied Wang. Love of the music is the name of the game. And if we’re lucky, we’ll get to hear them again—on Cross Campus, or anywhere people can come together to enjoy the company of others.