Now that the Ultimate Jazz Combo Workshop has passed its second year, we can safely call it a tradition and look forward to the next one.
Readers of this space might remember the first one, held a year ago at the Shenkman Centre with Sienna Dahlen, Christine Jensen, Roddy Ellias and Nancy Walker as guest faculty. Those participants who gave feedback were unanimous in their view that it should be tried again.
This time we moved to Arts Court, also a congenial location, providing, among other things, the opportunity to get lost in the Rideau Centre looking for a place to have lunch.
As in 2013, the 20-odd participants were divided into two groups, nominally called Beginner and Advanced, but with considerable overlap. Jim Lewis, trumpet, and Steve Boudreau, piano, were the faculty members for the advanced group; Sharada Banman, voice, and Kevin Barrett, guitar, worked with the beginner group.
As always, Anna Frlan looked after the administrative details and John Geggie provided overall supervision and inspiration. Set-up and lugging were handled by a number of people, most notably, John Graham and Ian Schwartz.
The 2013 experiment with selecting repertoire in advance seemed to work well, so it was continued this time. The advanced group, which included one vocalist, three horns, five pianos, two guitars, two basses and one percussion, worked on Recordame, Have You Met Miss Jones and Lover Man. The similar-sized beginner group worked on All of Me, Sonnymoon for Two and Fly Me to the Moon.
Charts for all the tunes were made available in advance. It was hoped, and the hope was probably borne out, that the participants would arrive with some familiarity with the tunes. This would not only save time, but allow for a closer look at the tunes, with chord alterations, rhythmic variations etc.
As an aside, I would mention that I attended a trumpet master class at GigSpace earlier in the week, featuring the New York (but Canadian) trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. Four young trumpet players played for her, accompanied by a student rhythm section, and Jensen offered comments that were helpful for the instrumentalists in the audience (a lot of trumpet players, some not so young) as well as on stage. At various points she asked the performers what versions of their tunes they had listened to. In several cases, the question drew a blank, which dismayed her.
My impression was that this would not have applied to the Ultimate folks. Dozens of versions of our tunes are available, on iTunes and, free, on YouTube, and I think many of us listened to them. There is nothing to open your ears up like spending an hour or so listening to 10 versions of Miss Jones — crazy intense ones, like Chris Potter and McCoy Tyner; relaxed mellow ones like Chet Baker and Ellis Marsalis. It was helpful also that Jim Lewis had brought along an iSomething with some of the recordings on it. He could illustrate a chord substitution in Lover Man by playing the Charlie Parker version. We could hear how Joe Henderson and Kenny Dorham used the chord progression of Recordame.
In my experience, most pros stress the value of listening, as opposed to just reading, when learning a tune. I heard that from Ingrid Jensen and also from our faculty.
We all got up and played, in various combinations, with Jim and Steve sometimes offering suggestions, sometimes listening patiently while we tried to solve problems on our own.
In some ways it was like a workshop at jazz camp, except that it lasted six or seven hours and we all got a chance to play. By playing, by making mistakes, by getting advice on how to overcome the mistakes, we improve.
A lot of information was conveyed, for all the instruments, and voices. There were tips for the chord instruments — how guitar and piano can keep out of each other’s way, how compers can support horn players and singers without overwhelming them.
There were tips on ensemble playing, on the uses of signals and eye contact to make sure that everyone is in the same place, to avoid the common situation where no one knows quite what the ending is going to be.
There was harmonic advice for all instruments — the use of triads, tritone substitutions, adding (or subtracting) II-Vs.
There was advice for soloists, scatters and horn players. Some of it was particularly thought-provoking for me, such as the advantages of playing lines in an upward, rather than downward direction.
All the advice was delivered with respect and good humour and I don’t see how anyone could have failed to enjoy it.
At the end of our session, someone asked Jim and Steve to demonstrate and they did a duo version of Miss Jones that had us thinking: “Oh. So that’s how you do it!”
Here are some thoughts from other participants. They verge on testimonials, but that’s the kind of day it was.
Dave Finlayson, drums: "As a rhythm section player I’m always intrigued to hear how melodic players are coached, what you have to deal with, all those intervals, harmonies, progressions etc. (I also got to play a lot of accidentals). But there was plenty of useful coaching for me too, and coming from professionals who are not primarily drummers is enlightening in unexpected ways. Finally, it’s such a pleasure to have these times with all my diverse JazzWorks buddies.”
Mary Moore, vocals and guitar: “The workshop learning goals were clearly laid out, and met, including understanding (and playing) root notes, guide tones, arpeggios as an aid to jazz improv. In addition, the advice, anecdotes and demonstrations by Kevin, Sharada and John Geggie were worth the price of admission in and of themselves. There was ample hands-on playing for participants (hence the 'Workout' moniker - I felt like I had been to the gym!). … A huge thanks to John, Anna, and the set-up crew for an inspiring and informative event!”
Sue McCarthy, alto sax: “All the moderators knew what part they had to play and we were led through the tunes in a methodical manner: first play the melody, become familiar, then notice the root notes for the chords, the guide tones, the arpeggios — the tools for improvisation. We were directed about how much and when to play, how to play with the other musicians. We all had the chance to improvise. We were encouraged to listen to what was going around us and to add only what added value to the whole. I especially appreciated Sharada’s charts where she indicated the guide tones and the arpeggios. This took the guesswork out for us. Overall, I think I came away with some tools for improvisation that I can think about and absorb into my playing. I feel very encouraged after this workshop and am really looking forward to jazz camp now. It is a nice tune up for jazz camp.”
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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.