The first time I saw the idea of a mentorship program for jazz combos was in an email from Kevin Barrett, the great guitarist and long-time JazzWorks faculty member. In an email last year discussing possible workshops, Kevin proposed a way of extending the combo coaching at jazz camp into the community.
“It seems to me,” he wrote, “that in the Ottawa area, there's a pretty significant network of bands / groups / regular sessions involving JazzWorks students and others. Almost anyone who's been to the camp more than once seems to have a band, or play regularly with someone. I wonder whether there's value in offering the kind of combo 'coaching' we all do at the camp, to this network? It could be a day-long workshop, where bands come for an intense workout with a coach … or maybe JazzWorks could offer a program where a band could book an instructor/coach to attend a series of rehearsals … and help them work on how they play together.”
With the aid of a grant from Community Foundation of Ottawa, we’ve been able to put Kevin’s idea into practice. You’ll see the details here. The idea is that your combo can schedule a session with a local faculty member. In all likelihood, this would involve having John Geggie, or Roddy Ellias, or Garry Elliott, or Mark Ferguson, or Steve Boudreau, or Rob Frayne, drop in for a couple of hours to your rehearsal, listen, offer comments and answer questions.
Those who have attended jazz camp are aware how effective the coaches can be. A group of musicians who basically haven’t met and may not be at the highest level, can become, with coaching and hard work, a tightly-knit unit performing at a higher level than anyone had thought possible in the beginning. And that applies at all levels. No one is too advanced to learn.
You can see this new program working in several different ways. One example might be new combos, the ones that typically are formed by people who meet at camp. In that situation, it’s hard sometimes to know where to begin — where to find repertoire, count-ins, ensemble playing, solo order, beginnings and endings, how to set up on the bandstand and, most important, how to interact as a group. These are issues that not everyone will have dealt with. A coach can certainly help there.
For more established groups, a coach can help in other ways. For example, sometimes combos can get too comfortable. They have list of tunes they can play well, they are satisfied with their soloing but they are not really improving. It’s here that a new set of eyes and ears can be really helpful. Maybe the tune that you always played Latin could be swung. Maybe somebody has always been playing a wrong chord in bar 7. Maybe the ballads are not slow enough. Maybe somebody is speeding up or slowing down, playing sharp or flat, playing too loud or too soft, playing solos that are too long — and nobody has the heart to say so. A coach could say so. Maybe the rhythm section is overpowering the soloists, or maybe it’s too weak. Maybe the horns are overpowering the singer. A coach could say so, and the group might never have thought of it.
There’s no shortage of bandstand issues and many of them can be easily resolved once somebody spots them. The trick is to spot them. As a bonus, sometimes a coach can bring in new tunes that will get everybody excited again. And here’s a radical thought: maybe the group sounds terrific and just needs someone to tell them that.
Many of us have had the benefit of combo coaching at camp, but a few of us were lucky enough recently to have experience in Ottawa. Specifically, it was in Alrick Huebener’s basement, when the host band for the September jam session rehearsed. Marylise Chauvette was the pianist. Let her tell the story:
“As we were preparing the Cole Porter' Notes gig a few months back, it dawned on us that a bit of professional help to untangle a few musical webs would be most helpful and thus sent out an SOS to pianist Steve Boudreau. Fresh off the plane from New York after an intensive few days of work and play over there, Steve nonetheless showed up that very evening to guide, inspire and encourage us. What a gift to have someone in the know to help us figure out the best approach and guide us subtly but efficiently into improved territory. A mentor is a gift that every group or individual musician deserves and needs. We could not recommend it more!” Marylise concludes.
There you have it. He was paid for his time, of course, just as participants in the Combo Mentorship Program will be paid, but the cost, spread out among us was very little (and for the Mentorship Program JazzWorks foots the bill for half of it). Steve could hear things that the rest of us didn’t and had ideas that the rest of us hadn’t. It made a big difference for us. JazzWorks is hoping it will make a big difference for you.
November jam coming up
Speaking of combos that are always striving to get better, the host band at the November jam session, the host band will be Free Association, a group that has been together for some time. The members are:
James Knopp — tenor/alto sax
Ken Suddaby — trumpet/flute
Jean Bergeron — piano
Ed Beingessner — guitar
Adrian Steeves — bass
Gerard Hartley — drums
Like Glebop, which did a fine opening set at the October jam, Free Association is thoughtful about repertoire, coming up with some interesting songs that are not frequently played. The result is a challenge both for the improviser and the listener.
That's Thursday, Nov. 20 at the Carleton Tavern. As usual, the host band plays at 8 p.m. and jamming commences about 45 minutes after.
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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.