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.
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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.