Nancy Walker, right, with Combo A
For a first-time effort, the Ultimate Jazz Combo Workout, held March 23, went surprisingly smoothly — after a missing piano was located for one of the rooms.
Twenty-six of us were there, 24 singers and instrumentalists and two people auditing the sessions. In addition, there were four faculty members — pianist Nancy Walker and vocalist Sienna Dahlen from Toronto, saxophonist Christine Jensen from Montreal, and Ottawa guitar legendy Roddy Ellias — as well as JazzWorks artistic director, bassist John Geggie. John, along with JazzWorks board member Lauren Walker organized the workshop. Lauren and JazzWorks administrator Anna Frlan looked after the arrangements. Another JazzWorks board member, John Graham organized the sound equipment, which involved a considerable amount of lugging.
The Shenkman Centre in Orleans was a congenial venue, one that we will probably use again.
We put a P.A. system into each of the two room spacious rooms we used. The participants were divided into two groups, with a rhythm section in each. The faculty members put the participants through their paces, working, in various combinations, on tunes that had been distributed beforehand. In the combo I was in, called Combo A, the tunes were Softly As in a Morning Sunrise, Alone Together, Body and Soul and What Is This Thing Called Love. Combo B worked on Little Sunflower, All Blues, Blue Monk and Beautiful Love.
Different combinations of singers and horn players worked with the rhythm section, going over the tunes, piecing together the different parts and coming to grips with new key signatures.
Players were urged to think their way through the new keys and use their ears rather than simply write down the new notes and chord symbols.
“If I write it down, I’m never going to think about it,” Nancy Walker said.
In the room I was in, the key signature was a big factor. Instead of performing Softly and the other tunes in “book” key, we did them in the key that worked best for the vocalists, of whom there were three. That meant, for most of us, playing without the book, a daunting prospect for some.
Some initially declined to solo but were talked into it. “I will solo,” said Gretchen. “And I will enjoy it.”
The exercise confirmed for me something I had long suspected — that people, particularly horn players, don’t need the book in front of them as much as they thought they did. I confronted saxophonist David Glover with this hypothesis after he had played a series of skilful solos with no music in front of him.
“A crutch,” he said.
We tried faster tempos, trying to avoid what Nancy Walker said was a tendency for tempos to default to sluggish during long jam session tunes. “I wish people would rush more than slow down,” said Christine Jensen.
There was a nice hands-on feeling to the session, with faculty members jumping up to whisper a suggestion to a player while the tune went on. Rhythm players were urged to change up the groove from time to time, using eye contact to communicate with the others. “How does it feel to you?” Nancy asked drummer Dave Finlayson, after an experiment in minimalist playing.
The importance of rhythm was stressed to the horn players and vocalists as well. “Always think about the concept of making a melodic and rhythmic statement,” Christine said. Vocalists and horn players also have a responsibility to the rhythm section, both to be clear rhythmically about what they are doing and to respond to shifts in the groove behind.
By lunch time we had worked intensively on two tunes. After lunch, Sienna Dahlen joined our group. She suggested an exercise in which everybody improvised, one at a time, on just the A section of Body and Soul (in a new key, of course). Her own version was inspiring. After that we went, up half a tone, to the B section.
And just before breaking for coffee we played it in the original key just for relaxation and Mortimer Katz played what must have been most gorgeous solo of the day — which shows what you can do with Body and Soul if you’ve been playing it for sixty years or so.
When we turned to What Is This Thing Called Love, we didn’t just talk about the tune. Christine offered advice on combining ear training and technique, on motific development in improvising and, once again, on the importance of using our ears.
“The more we use our ears, the more freeing the music can be and the more we connect with other people,” she said.
From what I’ve learned of responses to a survey participants filled out, and from what I heard from some of those participants at the Sunday jam session the next day, Christine, Nancy, Sienna and Roddy did indeed connect with us, and maybe some of us even connected with each other.
My spy in the other room, bassist Alrick Huebener, seconded that in an email he sent me, at my request, that night.
"This was everything a good jazz workshop should be — focused, intense and fun,” Alrick said. “We explored four quite different tunes ranging a standard to a modern modal piece, with different players switching from playing to listening mode in the combo. We were encouraged to listen intensely, think about theory and play with passion.
"The instructors provided ideas, direction and feedback ranging from how to navigate the chart, which scales to use, approaches to improvisation and helpful hints on getting good tone from your instrument.
"The energy of the teachers and generous spirits of my fellow participants, especially their willingness to take risks and play for keeps made for an intense experience that will help all of us up our game in jazz."
There was virtual unanimity among the participants that we should do this again and faculty members, in an exchange of emails, were unanimous in their praise of the concept and of the participants. So watch for it next time.
Alf Warnock in action at this month's jam session.
Alf Warnock bears a heavy load for JazzWorks. Literally heavy — watch him every month dragging the heavy sound equipment down from the second floor of the Carleton Tavern and back up again.
Alf has been doing that and more ever since the JazzWorks jam session moved to the Carleton in 2009. Looking after the sound for JazzWorks jam sessions is not easy. The room is difficult and finding a balance is too. The crowd is noisy, musicians are constantly fiddling with their volume controls and there is no shortage of people offering Alf suggestions.
He bears all this with patience and good humor. Lately he has been bringing in some of his own equipment in an attempt to improve the sound quality. People at the most recent jam session thought it was paying off.
In addition to all that, Alf is frequently on the bandstand with his guitar, in demand as an accompanist and demonstrating a thorough knowledge of the jazz songbook and vocabulary.
As you will have suspected if you’ve ever talked to him, Alf was born in Scotland — Glasgow, to be precise. He began playing piano around the age of five and took up the guitar at 12. Until he was about 18, he played lead quitar in a local skiffle group that morphed into a rock and roll group. Then he dropped out of the band to focus on university studies. During his graduate work he developed an interest in jazz guitar.
Alf earned his PhD in Scotland, then emigrated to Canada in 1967 to do post-doctoral work in Plasma Physics at the University of Saskatchewan. During his 3½ years in Saskatoon, he had a weekly radio program featuring jazz. At the same time he was singing Irish and other songs accompanying himself on guitar, mostly around the house and at parties.
He moved to Ottawa in 1971 to work at the National Research Council in the building acoustics group. Not long after his arrival he became enthusiastic about more traditional Irish music. He began playing mandolin and tenor banjo and still does. When he retired in June 2006, he began playing jazz guitar more seriously. He now plays guitar with the Grey Jazz Big Band and with the Cuppa Soup Combo, as well as being a jam session mainstay.
He still plays for two Irish ceili dances each month and for one English country dance each month but says jazz is now his major focus, for which the JazzWorks community is very grateful.
(photo credit: Lauren Walker)
Right on the heels of the Ultimate Jazz Combo Workshop (places still available!), comes another JazzWorks experiment, the first in a series of Sunday afternoon jam sessions. The inaugural one is Sunday, March 24 from 2 to 5 and others will follow, every second Sunday of the month. As usual, the jam will be held in the friendly confines of the Carleton Tavern, which has been extremely welcoming to our tribe.
One of the hopes is that this afternoon jam session will be attractive to students who, for some reason, generally avoid taverns on weekday nights. Depending on attendance and other factors, we might do some experimenting with format in this new jam. If you have any thoughts on that, or on how the jam session experience can be improved, please send them on to me, or use the Forum section of this website.
Marylise at the piano at last summer's jazz camp.
And don't forget the regular jam session
Whatever happens, one thing that will not change is the friendly and open vibe that has characterized JazzWorks jams since their inception. And speaking of that, the regular March jam, Thursday the 21st, will be hosted by the Take Trois Jazz Trio with Marylise Chauvette on piano, Flavio Jorge on bass and Dave Finlayson on drums. Some guests will sitting in on various tunes. I asked Marylise to describe the group and her response follows. I apologize in advance for any exaggerated claims about trumpet players:
"You must believe in spring! On March 21st, Take Trois is proud and enthused to celebrate the arrival of spring in the joyous company of the many kindred spirits who haunt the monthly jazzWorks jams. Of course, our musical menu will include a few seasonal odes, as well as tried and true jazz classics and a few surprises. The whole idea behind Take Trois is to provide a solid and flexible rhythm section that can function as a trio on its own or be enriched at whim with a serendipitous choice of wonderful local talents. The possibilities are endless! To help us salute spring in style, Take Trois welcomes to the hub the suave David Glover (sax), the cerebral Charley Gordon (trumpet), über crooner Sydney Bostic (vocal) and powerhouse Mary Moore (vocal). Be there to help us kill winter with music, friendship, beer and wine!"
Jazz and conversation
Speaking of jams and recent comments in the Forum section of this website about the noise level at the Carleton Tavern jam sessions — just to let you know that we’re not alone, I’m listening to some previously unreleased live recordings of the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. Taped at some unknown club in 1955, they feature the great drummer and the immortal trumpet player, plus Sonny Rollins on tenor, Richie Powell on piano and George Morrow on bass, plus some guy in the crowd who yacks all the way through it. You feel like grabbing him by the throat and saying: “Hey, that’s Clifford Brown you’re talking over! That’s Sonny Rollins!” There’s a woman at another table who is quite vocal as well.
If you’re familiar with the 1961 Bill Evans Sunday at the Village Vanguard sessions, you will have noticed the same thing. Why didn’t someone tell the yackers: “Hey, don’t you know this is Sunday at the Village Vanguard”?
Just thought you’d like to know the problem is not new. Jazz has always stimulated conversation.
Like a lot of JazzWorks folks, I’m working on tunes for the upcoming Ultimate Jazz Combo Workout on March 23. Some of the ones we will be playing — Body and Soul, All Blues, Softly As in a Morning Sunrise — are more or less familiar to me. Others, such as Little Sunflower, are ones I haven’t played much. And some, such as Skylark, are incredibly tricky. Try playing the bridge without the chart in front of you.
Charts, in fact, are being sent out to those who have signed up for the workshop — and it's not too late to sign up, by the way. But, as John Geggie reminds me, listening is just as important as reading, probably more. “One way to prepare is to listen to many different versions of a tune,” Geggie noted in an email. “For example, doing a search in the online listings of the Ottawa Public Library, one can find over 50 citations on CD for the tune What is This Thing Called Love; for Skylark, the number is around 30 (one of which is Julie Michel's excellent version with Don Braden). This is a goldmine of information for people to check out how different singers might phrase the lyrics, how a horn places the melody, how a rhythm section sets up a groove . . . all valid possibilities.”
I would add that iTunes is a great source and YouTube is too, and free. For a horn player, the ne plus ultra version of What Is This Thing is the one by Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and sure enough YouTube has it. Clifford’s solo shows you what you could do if you could only do everything.
Obviously, the great Coleman Hawkins version of Body and Soul is a must-listen and nobody is going to play Little Sunflower like Freddie Hubbard. But a little searching around will find you some other, quirkier versions that might give you some ideas. Frank Sinatra does Body and Soul. So, in a modal way, does John Coltrane. So do Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Jim Hall. For a special treat, check out Thelonious Monk’s rendition.
Many instrumentalists say that they can learn about a song by hearing a great singer sing it. Similarly, many vocalists are influenced by horn players in how they approach a song. You only get it by listening.
John Geggie adds: “The first thing we will be doing on Saturday morning is having the faculty get together with the combo folks and discuss the harmonic twists and turns of each tune — what scales or modes to play on, how to hear the chord changes going by. This is a chance to really get inside the tunes before we start playing on them.”
I’m looking forward to that. It is one thing to listen to a tune, another to read it off the page, but something entirely different to hear someone like Christine Jensen or Roddy Ellias, Nancy Walker or Sienna Dahlen discuss how the song works for them, what they are thinking while they are playing or singing it.
After that, the fun begins. As Geggie notes: “The extra thing is that participants are going to have a chance to work on those improvising skills, make some mistakes, try to some different things, get immediate feedback from the faculty and learn from watching and listening to what other people are doing at the same time.”
There’s more about the Ultimate Combo Workout elsewhere on this website. Maybe we’ll see you, and hear you, there.
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About this blog
Tune Up won't be a calendar of events — Ottawa Jazz Happenings takes care of that. But it will discuss events and issues of interest to the JazzWorks community. Journalist, author, trumpet player and a jazz camper since 1999, Charley Gordon is a former vice-president of JazzWorks.