Men With Short Beards Makes Virtuosic Music Accessible


Yvette Chen

Conservatory seniors Cory Todd (left) and Nate Mendelsohn perform as part of Men With Short Beards at the Cat in the Cream on Saturday. The quartet melded together a variety of genres during its improvised set.

Justine Goode

“You already got populist zombie jazz, right?”

“Screwball post-lullaby. Or is it post-screwball lullaby?”

“Pop-oriented improvisation.”

Only minutes after ending their set of original compositions at the Cat in the Cream, double-degree seniors Nate Mendelsohn and Stephen Becker stood offstage, tossing out various quippy phrases in an attempt to define their band’s musical style. “It’s a ‘songs’ band,” Becker finally said before walking away. “Just put that.”

The band in question was Men With Short Beards, featuring Mendelsohn on alto saxophone, Becker on guitar, Conservatory senior Cory Todd on bass and Duncan Stan-dish, OC ’13, on drums. The group’s set on Saturday night — an hour of almost completely improvised music — clearly thrilled the sizable audience that gathered at the Cat. The band seeks to make their music as accessible and enjoyable as possible for listeners, some of whom might feel alienated by the famously sophisticated and complex nature of improvisational jazz.

This distinct lack of pretense was incredibly refreshing and one of the band’s big-gest assets. Mendelsohn created a natural, easygoing rapport with the audience between songs, expressing genuine excitement at the turnout and plugging the group’s double life as a party band that plays Rihanna covers. After one song, he deadpanned, “That was about how mundane existence is,” before switching tone to a heartwarming declaration: “Everyone I love in the world is in this room.”

Once the band began playing, their talent and skill was instantly and overwhelm-ingly apparent, but their casual, inclusive approach meant that audience members never felt intimidated. This allowed listeners the freedom to sit back and enjoy the rich, caramel-like saxophone solos and the lush layerings of various musical styles without overthinking things.

The original compositions were enthralling, weaving together different musical elements into full, rich syntheses that took the form of both lullabies and anthems, meandering melodies and frenzied phrases. “The Trio Goes to Shake Shack, Pt. 1,” which opened with the swinging sounds of a big band, and with the inclusion of Becker’s guitar, suggested Count Basie with a country twang. The marriage of these two styles created a raucous, joyful, and almost rockabilly feel. And “Everyday is an Odyssey,” composed by Todd, evoked the dreamy listlessness of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” before building on Mancini’s motif to make it more complex and contemporary. As the set went on, songs began to feature more and more moments of wild, frenzied playing that felt uninhibited but never truly out of control. The band’s training resulted in a sort of measured abandon. The members had clear, natural chemistry, and their relaxed demeanor onstage helped foster the accessibility and enjoyment of their virtuosic tunes.

Men With Short Beards is headed to China for a two-week tour this Winter Term. The band plans to hold a fundraising party for the trip in the near future, playing covers of pop songs as well selling merchandise and auctioning off various band-related prizes. They even considered changing the name of the group to “Banter” in preparation for the tour; however, the members said such a change felt too constrictive, and it was bound to be short-lived.

“We thought ‘Banter’ sounded more serious — one word,” Mendelsohn explained. “But now we hate it for that reason.”