by KARA PETROVIC // Spring 2010
They never expected to win the recording contract or to see their self-titled CD “Diverse” reach No. 49 on the JazzWeek charts in early September. Members of the jazz quintet, Diverse, knew they had talent, but their dreams were modest. Four of the five members – Hermon Mehari, 22, trumpet; Ben Leifer, 23, bass; and cousins William Sanders, 23, tenor saxophone; and Ryan Lee, 21, drums – are studying at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance with jazz musician and composer Bobby Watson.
The students officially formed the group in 2007 after playing their first gig together in Mehari’s hometown of Jefferson City, Mo. During the fall semester, the group approached Watson for help. The group members no longer wanted to perform separately at the Conservatory; instead the students wanted the band to become an independent quartet. “I knew they had talent,” says Watson, UMKC’s William D. and Mary Grant/Missouri Distinguished Professor in Jazz Studies and Director of Jazz Studies, “so I wanted to help them not only perform together, but also to get credits for performing.”
The judges at the 2008 Gene Harris Jazz Competition held in Boise, Idaho, saw something they liked in Diverse, too – a uniqueness that set the group apart from 11 other seasoned bands competing from around the country. Mehari began researching the Idaho jazz competition in January 2008 and immediately took the competition details to Sanders, Leifer and Lee, as well as pianist John Brewer, 29, friend and teacher, who occasionally played with the group. Brewer even offered up his van to transport the group to Idaho.
“When I heard them play the day before they went to Idaho, they had really developed a repertoire,” says Waston, who has performed with jazz greats Max Roach, Louis Hayes and George Coleman. “I had a good feeling about them. I didn’t know they were going to win, but I had a good feeling that they could win.”
The rules were simple. Each band had 15 minutes to perform original compositions. “I was intimidated as heck,” says Sanders, a jazz performance major. “I was ready to go home. I thought if we can make it through this first round, let’s pack our bags.” Unexpectedly, Diverse sailed through round one to secure a spot in round two the following day.
Round two was no different. Diverse preformed three new songs and earned a spot in the final round. “We were thinking ‘Are you kidding? Don’t you have anything better to do?’” Sanders says. With the final round that night at the Knitting Factory Concert House in Boise, Sanders says the group knew there was no turning back and decided together, that if they wanted to win this competition, they had to pull out all the stops. Up against two other bands from Seattle and L.A., Diverse composed “Boise,” and learned Brewer’s arrangement “Dead Writing” that same day. With only a couple of hours of “diversals” (the band’s coined term for rehearsals) under their belts, Diverse took to the Knitting Factory’s stage.
After making it through the first two rounds and beating out some stiff competition, Diverse was close to winning the grand prize, a recording contract with Origin Records. Nerves were on edge as the last song ended, but the audience’s applause sealed the deal. “We knew we’d won by the smiles on everyone’s faces,” Sanders says. “I think there was a peace that came over everyone like, ‘We actually did it.’”
The next six months flew for Diverse as the group delved into weekly “diversals,” composed some new songs and honed in on previous pieces they agreed to record. They entered the studio on Jan. 2, 2009. With only two days of recording time available, the band completed the album in 10 hours. “When the possibility of them recording became a reality, I wanted to help,” says Watson, who produced the album and is guest artist on one of the tracks. “They needed someone who was going to listen for tightness and spirit, along with the groove and the feeling of the music. When I heard it, I encouraged them to move on. Each song only took one or two takes.”
Origin Records released the CD in July 2009, and more than 500 have been sold. “We’ve gone plastic,” Mehari jokes. In October, more than 50 alumni, friends and jazz lovers helped the group kick off the CD in style at Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, Calif. So, how does the band sum up the CD? Simply put, Lee says, “It’s tight.” Mehari, who agrees with Lee’s interpretation, says the CD is also a combination of everyone’s different backgrounds and styles. “When we play together we naturally try to play what fits us best as a whole, while still being true to ourselves and true to our music.”
Throughout the coming months, the band will continue to travel and promote the album. In April, the band will return to Boise and play at the 2010 Gene Harris Jazz Competition. And if all goes right, Diverse hopes to finalize a tour in New Orleans this spring, as well as some possible tours in Europe over the summer. “I think that they are going to go far,” Watson says. “Diverse is a launching pad into the world of jazz for all of them. They are going to be a group that will make a mark and be remembered in the jazz world.”