What could be a nicer experience, sitting in the legion hall, sipping something, visiting with friends and listening to a big band. I mean big. Rob Frayne's Dream Big Band on Saturday night had 17 players in it, and that doesn't count the dancers.
Two of them came out during most the the tunes, interpreted the song in dance, and then danced off into the wings. People applauded, briefly, as if the dancers were jazz players and their solos were over. Not many bandleaders would think of putting dancers in the band, but then, Rob is Rob.
As with his smaller Dream Band of a couple of years ago, the music was complicated, yet accessible. There is a great spirit to it, and also the wonderful satisfaction for the listener of watching the musicians react to the challenge of it, both in the ensemble playing and the improvising. There was a lot of changing horns among the reed players, in the brass section a lot of shifting from trumpet to flugelhorn and back, a lot of putting in and taking out mutes.
Some jazz musicians are not fond of big bands, finding them regimented — all that reading — and lacking in solo time. That can happen, and has happened, in some bands. The best bandleaders build their arrangers around the soloists — think of Donny McCaslin with Maria Schneider’s band. The Frayne band was like this too. You wanted to hear more from some of the musicians, such as Mike Tremblay, who had no solos, but those who did solo did so at length.
What is sacrificed in solo time is made up for in the spirit, energy, colour and power that only a big band can offer. The arranging, most of it by Rob, with one gorgeous tune by drummer, Mike Essoudry, was far from the stereotypical blend of trumpet section, sax section and trombone section. Vibes were in the mix, also a piccolo, flutes and clarinet, a Hammond B-3 organ. There was even a bass clarinet and all manner of percussion. Like the best of jazz, this was an evening full of surprises.
The music demands a high level of commitment from the soloists and all of them had it. They really rose to the occasion — Zakari Frantz on alto, Roddy Ellias on guitar, Don Cummings on organ, Mark Ferguson on trombone and the two ringers from Montreal, Joel Miller on tenor and Bill Mahar on trumpet.
Rob's music constantly shifts rhythms, and sometimes time signatures. Mike Essoudry on drums handled all that with ease. As a trumpet player, I was also impressed with how the four-man section survived the demands placed on it by Rob's writing, particularly Nick Dyson on lead trumpet.
The Westboro legion hall is spacious but with a low ceiling. During the quieter passages, you could hear the country band playing in a room upstairs. Somehow that didn't spoil anything. Perhaps it added to the informal feel of the evening. Although the music was contemporary, it had its throwback moments, reinforced by the setting.
Somehow it made me think of what it was like in the '40s and earlier, when, on a Saturday night, dozens big bands bands would be in operation all over the region, mostly playing for dancing, but for listening too. A lot has changed since then, much of it for the better, but there's a lot to be missed too. People still dance, but too often it's to a guy with a Mac and big set of amps.
You can blame technology for that, as well as economics. A club owner today would sooner pay one guy with a Mac than 17 folks with horns. You can also blame the audience. People stay home and watch things on screens.
All is not lost. There are other big bands in town, in addition to Rob's, some good ones too. But they need places to perform and people to pay them. When someone goes through the ordeal of organizing 17 musicians, writing charts and finding a way to rehearse, then takes the financial risk of hiring the hall and hoping people will buy tickets, you have to admire him. But then, Rob is Rob.
The Internet can be a blessing for musicians. The ease of finding tunes on YouTube, downloading them on iTunes, the terrific videos of jazz musicians — we now have more resources at our disposal than ever before.
The downside of this wealth of information is that a lot of it is bad. The trick is to distinguish what is useful from what is damaging.
Anybody who knows a hypochondriac knows that there is a lot of ridiculous health information on the web. Anybody who knows a golfer (the sports equivalent of a hypochondriac) knows that there is no shortage of golf tips available, enough to ruin anybody’s game at the click of a mouse.
And there is a lot of stuff for musicians too. I’ve been impressed by the series of videos on YouTube from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Academy. Trumpet players like Marcus Printup, Kenny Rampton and Ingrid Jensen share ideas about warming up, increasing range and so on. I’ve tried some of them and I like them.
But then I wondered about this kind of musical self-medication. Is it going to get me into trouble? So I asked a pro, and this is the answer I got from Nancy Walker, wonderful pianist, teacher and JazzWorks faculty member:
“'Consider the source’ was a saying my dear departed Mum imparted to me on more than one occasion,” Nancy writes. “If the musician spouting the advice has a solid reputation and track record as a player and/or educator, then his/her advice via the Internet might be great. If the musician is unknown to the viewer, then a little research into their background and reputation would probably be a good idea before implementing their advice.”
Nice advice. The Jazz at Lincoln Center folks obviously fall into the reputable category. But I wonder about some of the others. The Internet is full of folks teaching you how to hit double-high C, the Holy Grail for a certain kind of trumpet ego, or how to have perfect pitch. The Internet is also full of folks teaching you how to break 80, cure hiccups and get triple your gas mileage. The expression “buyer beware” might be even more relevant when the product is free.
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I’ve been away for a few weeks and want to clear up an accumulation of odds and ends of interest to the JazzWorks community. First, a word about the Vocal Jazz Workshop Series. Sessions two and three have had to be cancelled because of low enrolment, but the first session will proceed and will be held Sunday, April 12 at Festival House. Sharada, a celebrated vocalist and teacher, as well as a JazzWorks faculty member, has titled the session “Learning a new tune in your personal style.”
Elsewhere on this website is further information. JazzWorks President Mary Moore, suggesting that the timing might have been off for offering a three-part program, promises that there will be a survey in the near future to see what other programs members of the JazzWorks community might be interested in.
“It can be difficult,” Mary notes, “to gauge the public's appetite for any programming, as everyone in the teaching business knows, but JazzWorks will continue to offer what we feel is inspired, affordable, quality programming. Both our Artistic Director and our Executive Producer have built strong relationships with top national and international jazz performers/educators, and we will continue to offer exciting learning and performance experiences to our constituents.
“For the moment,” Mary adds, “our focus is on Camp.” Registration is now open, in case you didn’t know.
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Next is news about the next Thursday night jam session, April 16 at the Carleton Tavern. The host band is called St. Vincent and features, speaking of strong trumpet players, Carl Daniel. Others in the band are Edwin Gans on alto sax, Frank Edgerton on piano, Tim Healy on bass and Tim Leah on drums. As always, the host band plays at set at 8 p.m. and jamming begins 45 minutes or so later. It’s always a good time.
Three days later, the fourth in the Sunday jam session series will be held at Bluesfest Festival House, 450 Churchill Avenue at 2 p.m. This jam session, more organized than the Thursday event, features coaching and input from professional musicians. It has been particularly helpful to and well-received by less experienced musicians.
The Sunday, April 19 jam will be mentored by bassist Dave Schroeder. Dave, a much in-demand player on the local scene, has a music doctorate from the University of Miami and has also studied at Berklee. He is now teaching at Carleton.
"I think because it is a jam session rather than a workshop/clinic/ensemble class the focus should be mainly on playing," Dave writes. "I will offer guidance and organization tips, and I will help whenever I can with regards to sharing my relevant experiences. I will offer the participants advice pertaining to what might be expected in a professional level jam session, drawing on my experiences in various cities in Canada and the U.S. I hope that the participants leave the session inspired to implement new ideas into their practice routines that will help them progress and grow as musicians. The experience will help them to grow musically and to learn more about jam session etiquette and expectations, and will help them to be more effective and productive in future sessions."
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Finally, a word about comings and goings on the JazzWorks board. The latest departure, much regretted, is that of Dave Finlayson. It was Dave who took on the difficult and complex task of bringing the organization’s structure and constitution into line with recent legal changes regarding not-for-profit organizations. The job took several years, but it is done.
“Serving on the board was enriching, enlightening, and gratifying, thanks to the fabulous people (too many to thank individually) collectively known as JazzWork,” Dave says. “As a board member I connected with other not-for-profit and charitable organizations and came to appreciate how JazzWorks is a vital community within our diverse broader community, particularly through its educational initiatives but also in ways that are less visible. Closer to home I saw first-hand the dedication of the board in bringing value to us JazzWorks friends in so many ways. You don't miss your water until the well runs dry — continue supporting our precious JazzWorks, come to camp, the jams, the workshops, volunteer, visit the website often, and stay in touch with your fellow jazz-lovers. There's really nothing like it.”
Dave deserves both thanks and a rest. As long as he doesn’t rest from playing drums.
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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.