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Humber College Studio Jazz Ensemble brings new big band collaborations to Ottawa

One of Canada's best student big bands is coming to town Tuesday night – not only to show off what they've learned from the likes of Donny McCaslin and Joe Lovano, but also to attract Ottawa jazz talent to their school.

The Nepean All-City Jazz Band (seen here in 2012) has invited the Humber College Studio Jazz Ensemble to perform with it in Ottawa on March 24. ©Brett Delmage, 2012

The Humber College Studio Jazz Ensemble from Toronto will share the stage with the Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB) from Ottawa. Don't expect swing era music at the concert at Nepean High School: each big band will be featuring pieces primarily by modern jazz composers like McCaslin, Kenny Wheeler, Michael Brecker, and Pat Metheny.

Mark Promane, the director of the Humber ensemble, said the Ottawa concert was obviously something special for his students, to show “what we're made of” in another city. But they picked Ottawa, he said, because it's “a hotbed of young talent” which “we're looking at recruiting” for Humber.

NACJB director Neil Yorke-Slader said that the Studio Jazz Ensemble is “one of the elite post-secondary jazz ensembles in the country”, and that many former members of the NACJB have gone on to study at Humber.

He said that for his band members, “it's an opportunity to really see and hear and interact with young musicians who are at the next stage of their development. I always believe it's a better motivator for kids to see people only a little bit older than themselves to doing something, rather to go see the Count Basie Orchestra – and you say, 'OK, fine, but they're 60, and how does that relate to me?' So I think that's what we get out of it: we get to listen to a great band, the standard of which there would be very few if any peers at the post-secondary level in Canada. We get to be up close and personal with them and that's a wonderful motivator on so many levels for our band.”

Promane said this concert will feature music from three projects the Humber ensemble worked on this year, starting with a tribute to the late Canadian composer Kenny Wheeler coordinated by pianist Brian Dickinson. They're scheduled to play Wheeler's “Four Five Six” from his 2012 album, The Long Waiting.

In early March, the ensemble played a concert with American saxophonist Joe Lovano, and Promane said they would include some material that Lovano had chosen for that show.

Arranging Donny McCaslin's music – and them performing it with him

Jacob Gorzhaltsan at Merrickville's JazzFest. ©Brett Delmage, 2014And next week will be the culmination of an even-deeper collaboration, with NYC saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Ottawa audiences may remember McCaslin for his performances with Ottawa double bassist John Geggie, and as a member of Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra, which performed at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2010. McCaslin has also taught at the JazzWorks jazz camp and in the National Arts Centre's Manhattan on the Rideau video masterclasses, and brought his quartet to Ottawa in 2012.

McCaslin has been a visiting professor at Humber twice already this year, Promane said, and will return for his third and last visit next week. Six students in the college's arranging course (including several members of the ensemble) were asked to take a piece by McCaslin and arrange it for the ensemble. But not just for the ensemble – for the ensemble plus McCaslin himself. Next week, they will record an album with McCaslin including those pieces, and will perform them in concert with him on April 1.

The Ottawa concert will include several of those pieces, Promane said, though perhaps not all because some may still need further rehearsal. “We're really excited to do that music.”

The ensemble includes clarinetist and saxophonist Jacob Gorzhaltsan, who was a big hit at Merrickville's Jazzfest when he played in the Denielle Bassels Quintet. Promane said that, in Ottawa, Gorzhaltsan and saxophonist Michael Wenkoff will be playing many of the saxophone parts which would be performed by either Lovano or McCaslin in the ensemble's Toronto concerts.

Yorke-Slader said this was the second time the Humber ensemble and the NACJB had performed a joint concert (the first time was in 2006). He said the Humber ensemble would also perform at assembly at Longfields Davidson Heights Secondary School (with students from other high schools invited) the following morning before they returned to Toronto.

A very experienced year for the Nepean All-City Jazz Band

The NACJB's program for Tuesday's concert will likely include arrangements of pieces by modern composers like Maynard Ferguson, Pat Metheny (“If I Could”), Michael Brecker, and by big band composers like Don Gailey and Yorke-Slader himself. Yorke-Slader said the most recognizable might be “Cherokee” and Jimmy Webb's “MacArthur Park”.

The band, which includes Ottawa-area students from 15 to 19 years old, has consistently won awards in national competitions over the last 27 years. But Yorke-Slader was particularly happy with this year's edition, which has many returning students from last year, and double the number of women (4, up from 2).

“I find that this is a band that plays more smoothly. There's an effortlessness to the sound – sometimes bands when you hear them you go, 'Wow, they're working hard!' There's a fluidity to this band. We can play a lot of music that has a lot of lines and stuff and it doesn't sound like they're playing beyond their means or even up to their means.”

“I find that this is a band that plays more smoothly. There's an effortlessness to the sound. There's a fluidity to this band. We can play a lot of music that has a lot of lines and stuff and it doesn't sound like they're playing beyond their means or even up to their means.”
– Neil Yorke-Slader

“This rhythm section is so strong. It's one of the best rhythm sections I've ever had – really, really strong, and so the time is really good in the band. And while one would hope in a band of this calibre the time's always good, it's not. And even if you go and hear university groups, you can feel things push and pull. But the time is really good and Alex Lim-Sersan is the piano player and his older brother [Deniz Lim-Sersan] went to Humber two years ago. Alex is cut from the same cloth – a really, really talented piano player.”

Bassist Ben Heard was in the highly exclusive National Youth Jazz Combo last year, while the drummer is Yorke-Slader's son Dean. “That's very exciting for me, as you can imagine!”

But the band's biggest strength is its very experienced trumpet section, he said. Aaron Shifman, who plays lead trumpet, can play “exciting, high, high trumpet” – and three of the four other trumpet players would normally be playing lead in other bands. “And because we've got Aaron playing over the top, they're all playing very comfortably in their ranges. So it's really strong.”

Finally room for a guitarist as guest artist

Next month, the NACJB will bring in a guest artist with whom to perform a full concert at Longfields Davidson School on April 23. This has usually been a horn player, but because the band doesn't include a guitarist this year, Yorke-Slader was able to invite someone new – Toronto guitarist Ted Quinlan. [Ottawa audiences heard Quinlan's fluid and inventive style most recently in the Nancy Walker Quintet in February; with John Geggie in April, 2014; and several times in the Walrus Quartet with Roddy Ellias.]

Quinlan will be performing two songs just with the band's rhythm section during the show, as well as soloing and playing with the entire band, and will be suggesting pieces for the concert, Yorke-Slader said.

"From Jazz to Hip-hop” with the NAC Orchestra

The NACJB will also be performing with an even bigger band on April 29, when it plays in two student matinées with the National Arts Centre Orchestra. The program is called “From Jazz to Hip-hop”, and will feature the NACJB performing with the Swing Dynamite swing dancers, and playing one piece with the full orchestra.

“It's going to be an amazing experience. Alain Trudel is the featured artist, a trombonist from Montreal, and he's the one that will be conducting the orchestra and doing most of the talking. He's taken the chart we're playing and arranged a whole bunch of other bits for the orchestra when they join us. So that's going to be cool. It's one of my tunes, which is cool, too. Doubly exciting for me.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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