During the lunch break at the New Jersey Music Educators Association/New Jersey Association of Jazz Educators All-State Jazz Ensemble’s first rehearsal, Jacob Tolentino started playing the blues on his trumpet. His Newark Academy classmate, trombonist Vanessa Fang, began playing the piano. Then, said Tolentino, “all the musicians just put down their food and started playing with us. We had a really great time. I was able to bond with a lot of people I’ve never met before.”
The All-State Jazz Ensemble is made up of 17 students from 15 New Jersey high schools. So, while these are all outstanding student jazz musicians, most of them have never played with each other.
Meeting jazz peers from other locations is nothing new for the 18-year-old Tolentino. In the spring of 2022, he was part of the Newark Academy band that competed as a finalist in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition. In February 2023, Tolentino was named an Outstanding Soloist at the Charles Mingus High School Competition & Festival, held at The New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York.
And this past summer, he was selected as one of 10 trumpet players in a nationwide audition process to be invited to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s prestigious Summer Jazz Academy. One of the instructors there was trumpeter Marcus Printup, who said Tolentino “excelled greatly. He diligently worked on everything I gave him. Jacob has a huge sound and possesses a level of maturity beyond his years. If he continues to work hard, he could be the next ‘cat’.”
Jazz has always been a part of Tolentino’s life. His father, alto saxophonist Julius Tolentino, is Jazz Director at Newark Academy. “I guess I first realized I wanted to play jazz,” he said, “when I was in the second grade, trying different instruments. I kind of wanted to play the drums at first, but I had an easier time on the trumpet, so I just stuck with that. I didn’t take it that seriously at the start, but once I started playing with smaller combos and big bands, I realized that I liked it. I think that was around the fourth grade.”
Early on, Tolentino’s biggest influence on trumpet was Freddie Hubbard. “I just really liked his sound, and, specifically, he recorded a song with Herbie Hancock, ‘Canteloupe Island’. I was listening to that song over and over again. Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of Roy Hargrove and Blue Mitchell.”
Two major motivators for him have been his father and his private trumpet instructor, Nathan Eklund. “I’ve learned a lot from my father on a daily basis,” he said. “I really appreciate how much he pushed me to practice every day and keep going. I don’t think I would be as into it if he didn’t show me how much fun it could be. During the summer, we go to a jam session in New York or somewhere close every two weeks. And, that’s a really good memory for me.”
Eklund has “really helped me figure myself out with music. I’ve always been relying on my ears for improvising, and he wants me to sit and take some lines through the circle of fourths (a diagram that shows the relationships between different musical keys). I can see improvement since I started doing that.”
Utilizing ideas through the circle of fourths, said Eklund, has helped Tolentino “clearly understand and identify what the sounds are that he’s already hearing in the music. Jacob,” he continued, “is a young musician who has great ears and incredible instincts for jazz, probably hugely affected by growing up in a family of musicians. His concepts for jazz phrasing and his ability to hear what he wants to play were apparent when I first started working with him several years ago. But recently, over the past year or so, we’ve really worked to build a greater fluency with the jazz language. The sky’s the limit for Jacob and I know he will be someone to look out for as he progresses into college and beyond.”
Tolentino, who lives in Roselle Park, NJ, is a senior at Newark Academy but hasn’t made a college decision yet. “I’m looking into a lot of schools,” he said, adding that he’s definitely planning a career in music. – SANFORD JOSEPHSON