Stretching Musical Boundaries

Marcus Lolo at the piano in Slee Hall.

Marcus Lolo at the piano in Slee Hall

Marcus Lolo, pianist and music performance major, was tapped to compose and perform original music for the State of the University Address.

As UB junior Marcus Lolo walked on to the stage in Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall and approached the concert grand Steinway piano, he faced the familiar leap of faith that comes before he begins to play.

It’s an exercise in confidence and vulnerability, he says. It also means overcoming mental doubt that accompanies his live performances, while looking for the exhilaration that follows when connecting with his audience.

This time Lolo was facing what arguably may be the biggest honor the university can confer on a student musician. He was chosen to musically enhance the video shown during President Satish K. Tripathi’s State of the University address last October. The 28-year-old piano performance major, who first enrolled at UB as an engineering major before switching to music, nailed it. The ovation from those listening to Tripathi’s annual speech tipped the applause meter as much as anything that day.

“I would call it ‘knocking it out of the park,’” says Jonathan Golove, associate professor and chair of the Department of Music, who along with colleague Eric Huebner, associate professor of piano performance and director of undergraduate studies, chose Lolo to perform that day. “He was extremely poised with a sense of gravitas,” Golove says. “He’s an undergraduate, but he comes across as a person with greater depth of experience than you might expect, one who inspires confidence.”

Lolo performed his original creation that served as the accompaniment to the video highlighting 175 years of UB history. He called it “Épopée Impromptue”—or “Impromptu Epic”—paying homage to UB’s journey, as well as those musical roots he brings from his French Haitian heritage. He grew up in Haiti, where the first half of his education was in French, and calls both Port-au-Prince and New York City home.

“Not that written music is antiquated, but improvised music is the language of the future. I am using devices from both classical education here and also my tradition of gospel and jazz.”

Marcus Lolo

From the opening designed as “someone falling into a dream,” to building harmonic tensions between eras, to a Disney movie motif, “Épopée Impromptue” called the audience to follow Lolo on a musical journey reflecting UB’s story.

“To me, it’s freeing and exhilarating,” he said a few days after his Lippes performance, which included formal wear, an absence of sheet music and deep, refined bows. “As soon as you get into it, you get into the groove. With every note you play, you regain your confidence in the fact you know what you are doing.”

With his blend of classical musical training and improvisation roots in jazz and spirituals, Lolo developed the theme for “Épopée Impromptue” in a half-hour. He saw the video Monday, developed ideas Wednesday and played his original work Thursday for the rehearsal. The performance was Friday.

“It’s not like I came up with those ideas from scratch in 30 minutes,” he says. “I have the tools. I know what those chords are. I know what feelings they relay. It’s borrowing from the years of work I have done, and studying harmony and structure, and I borrowed from the theory class I am taking right now.

Meanwhile, Lolo continues to redefine what it means to be a community-minded undergraduate. His “Ode to Democracy” single, dedicated to the late Haitian guitarist and political activist Manno Charlemagne, used local musicians and a locally produced video. He is music director at Emmanuel Temple Seventh-Day Adventists in Buffalo, and band leader at Macedonia Baptist Church. He’s also director of Buffalo’s Love Supreme School of Music, which gives free lessons to a growing number of underserved children between 5 and 18. The education for those students learning improvisation goes beyond music. “They have a broader idea on how to tackle academic or general life problems by making smart, creative decisions in the moment,” Lolo says.

Careful to honor his accomplished UB mentors—including adjunct instructor of music and Grammy Award-winning pianist George Caldwell—Lolo calls studying piano at UB “by far one of the most defining events of my life.” Their influence taught Lolo a lesson central to his past, present and future.

“The music in me,” he says, “was worth sharing.”

Story by Jeff Z. Klein
Photograph by Douglas Levere

Published March 18, 2022