The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

Renowned pianist plays Gantner stage

Janie Boschma

His fingers fly fast across the keys as he improvises a jazz solo, energizing the band and stunning the audience. After the applause dies down, the pianist thanks the musicians and audience, adding that he hopes to return to UW-Eau Claire in the future.

Nationally known Cuban and Latin jazz pianist Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera played on Gantner stage Friday night. The Eau Claire Jazz I ensemble hosted Herrera as a special guest for its concert.

“You couldn’t just help but sit at the edge of your seat,” said senior Jazz I trumpet player John Raymond. “He just draws you in with who he is and with his playing.”

Herrera came to Eau Claire because of his professional-level work with four seniors: Raymond and Paul Stodolka on trumpet, Evan Benidt on saxophone and Justin Verhasselt on trombone. The five-man group, called Twin Cities Horns, includes another Cities-area saxophone player and has been playing with Herrera since August at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in Minneapolis, one of the largest jazz clubs in the country.

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Jazz I pianist and senior Adam Braatz said seeing Herrera was unbelievable. Braatz described Herrera as “one of the guys” in jazz music.

Robert Baca, the ensemble’s director, said the first time he heard Herrera at the Dakota, he was on the second floor of a sold-out audience.

“My jaw dropped two floors,” Baca said. “I’ve never heard a jazz pianist like him before.”

Sophomore jazz pianist Brandon Covelli said he sat onstage with his mouth open for most of Herrera’s performance on Friday night.

“My eyes couldn’t keep up with his hands,” he said.

From his seat, Covelli said he had a good view of the audience’s reaction. They were in silent amazement, he said.

Herrera worked with Jazz I on Friday afternoon before the concert.

“He just knows so much about music in general – particularly, Cuban music,” said senior Jazz 1 trumpet player Keith Karns.

During rehearsal, Herrera went over maintaining balance between the instruments and improving communication between the soloist and the rest of the band.

Herrera said he looks forward to working with students and sharing his passion for music. He is also humble about his personal success.

“I’ve been really blessed because people really like the concerts I play,” Herrera said.

Herrera played in the final two pieces in Friday’s concert, “Night in Tunisia” and “Tico Tico.” During the last number, Herrera motioned for Benidt to stand and improvise with him.

“The first thing that went through my head was, ‘What? Are you serious?'” Benidt said. “I felt like, ‘. how am I supposed to play on a level with a performer like him?'”

But Benidt said he stepped up and resolved to give the challenge everything he had.

“I just tried to let go and play and let everything come out,” he said.

Senior Michelle Kochan, a music education major who plays the alto saxophone, said she found herself smiling throughout the concert. The improvisation section at the end, she said, was especially packed with emotion.

“It was way more than I expected,” agreed freshman Stephanie Weber, adding that the ending improvisation was the highlight of the concert.

Herrera said Benidt is an “unbelievable” saxophone player.

“We are looking at the second (famed 20th century jazz saxophonist) Charlie Parker in the United States,” Herrera said, adding that he hopes he will continue to work with the Twin Cities Horns.

“I really like to work with them,” said Herrera. “They are so professional.”

Not only can Herrera play jazz and Latin piano, Raymond said, but his classical skills are “mind-blowing.”

“(Nachito) can pretty much do anything,” Raymond said, adding that he is a master of his instrument.

Braatz added that Herrera is humble, approachable and very willing to share the wealth of knowledge he has at his disposal.

“He’s a definition of what a guy in that position should be.”

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Renowned pianist plays Gantner stage