Composers at work in the woods.
This summer marks the second edition of the latest JazzWorks innovation, the two-day Composers’ Symposium and Independent Practice extension that precedes the regular camp. For those of you who are wondering whether to take part, what follows is a description of how the extension, as we call it, works. Helping the description are thoughts gleaned from email interviews with some of last year’s participants.
Last summer, four faculty members — John Geggie (bass), Jim Lewis (trumpet), Frank Lozano (saxophone) and Dave Restivo (piano) — were on hand to assist JazzWorks participants with their original compositions, many of which would be played a few days later in the camp’s closing concert. There were 11 participants in the Composers’ Extension.
The same faculty members were available to assist those campers who took advantage of the Independent Practice option, which went on at the same time. There were 10 of these, bringing their instruments to CAMMAC for a couple of quiet days of practice before the bulk of the campers arrived. The faculty offered tips and guidance on practising.
Both composers and practisers (as they came to be known) enjoyed certain common elements. One was a series of general discussions on jazz and playing it in which faculty folks offered useful, and always entertaining ideas based on their experience as professional musicians. Another was the peaceful environment at a relatively unpopulated camp — 25 or so people, instead of 90 or so — one that seemed conducive to practising or composing, or both.
Pianist Ginny Simonds attended the Independent Practice camp with other members of her group, Wave. “Although I had intended to spend time in individual practice, it turned out to be a great opportunity to play with others, share ideas and resources, have one-on-one time with faculty members, and generally let things happen a little more organically,” she noted.
The advantages of a less populated environment were not lost on her either. “Without schedules to follow, the quiet evenings provided time to take advantage of the beauty of the area,” she said. “We explored the lake by canoe both evenings, watched the sunset with wine in hand, and of course couldn't resist a little more jamming.”
Drummer Dave Finlayson, another practiser, had a similar reaction: “The prospect of dedicated practice sessions away from home, free access to faculty and fellow JazzWorks campers for an extra two days was too good to turn down,” he said. “The symposium exceeded my expectations. Faculty-led sessions on ear training, concepts of practicing, rhythm section wisdom and other topics turned out to be an added value I hadn’t anticipated. At least twice a day we students gathered with faculty for broad-ranging and informal discussions on everything jazz. It was instructive and comforting to hear that we all face many of the same challenges, and to pick up tips for managing them. The spontaneous jam sessions were particularly rewarding as I was able to depart from playing the standards to work on some specific rhythmic concepts with fellow musicians. All this in the gorgeous setting of CAMMAC. How could you go wrong?”
As for the composers, here’s how pianist and composer Gretchen Schwarz remembers the two days: “As I recall, on Tuesday evening everyone got together in a large group and brainstormed some topics we wanted to explore with faculty members the following day. Rooms were assigned for these discussions, so — for example (and I am totally making this up) — if you wanted to talk about scales to use while soloing over chord structures, you would go to Lucy where John and Jim were presenting. At the same time, Frank and Dave were going to be discussing modes in Verdi. After these post-breakfast lectures and discussions on both Wednesday and Thursday mornings, we broke off into private practice rooms — the composition people having worked out loose agreements to book time with various faculty members who were very generous in giving their help and support (and actually seemed to enjoy doing it!). Meals were served at the usual times. On Wednesday evening, we again got together as a large group and assessed how the day had gone. Similar plans were made for the next day ….”
I was one of the so-called composers and, like others, was taken with the informality of the proceedings. There was ample time to try to apply what we were learning to what we were writing and get the reaction of faculty to what we had put on paper.
On the first night, I handed Jim Lewis a piece I was working on. He took a quick look and made some suggestions, including some stuff about notation that I didn’t know. The next day, with lots of free time available, I took the piece to one of the cabins. (For those who have not been to CAMMAC, it is full of music rooms and cabins with pianos.) While I was hacking away at the piece, who should emerge from the woods but Jim and Frank Lozano, tenor saxophone in hand. They looked at the piece and played it through, made some suggestions about chords and structure.
This was typical of faculty behaviour. They actively sought out both practicers and composers and offered to help. Later I asked Dave Restivo to look at another tune. He played it through (making it sound wonderful, of course) and showed how changing a chord would make a melody note sound better.
The final afternoon, the faculty set up in one of the larger music rooms and played through some of the tunes that the composers had brought. What a rewarding experience that was (hope the faculty enjoyed it too)!
As far as I can tell, my experience was shared by others, especially those who had arrived with a composition in hand. “It was the first time that I heard the tune played live when it was played by the pros at the end of the symposium,” said pianist Gerald Lemay. “This was way cool!”
Gerald added that “leading up to this interpretation of the piece were countless edits and revisions based on the suggestions from the pros. I had several one-on-one insightful conversations with each of these amazing musicians who write, arrange, teach and perform for a living. These folks were accessible and fun to interact with.”
Gretchen had a similar experience: “I showed up on Tuesday afternoon with a partially-written tune that consisted of several contrasting sections and Dave Restivo helped me transform it into two entire complete songs, one of which was performed at the concert on Sunday!”
Helping all this to happen was a pilot project grant from the Ontario Arts Council. This year, the grant was not available but, because it proved to be a valuable addition to the program, the JazzWorks board decided to go ahead with Composers Extension and Independent Practice again this summer, albeit with fees increased to reflect the true costs. Co-ordinated by John Geggie, this year’s faculty, familiar faces all, consists of saxophonist Rémi Bolduc, pianist Nancy Walker and drummer Nick Fraser, all noted composers as well as instrumentalists.
After last year’s camp, JazzWorks sent out a questionnaire on participant reaction to the camp. Of those who attended the two days of the Composers’ Symposium and Independent Practice, 100 per cent said they would recommend them to others. Not to rush you, but registrations for this year are already starting to come in.
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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.