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All together now: Rob Frayne's big Dream Band spectacle

“I've been running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” bandleader and composer Rob Frayne says as he arrives at OttawaJazzScene.ca's office to tell me all about his new Dream Band concert this Saturday. He refers to “lots of lists and checklists and spreadsheet-type things. Timings. People. Where they are, when they are. “

Rob Frayne's Dream Band concert on Saturday will be something to watch as well as listen to. ©Brett Delmage, 2015

No surprise. This “Back to the Future” concert (although “spectacle” might describe it better) features an 18-piece big band that includes a Juno award-winning sax player, a Hammond organ, and a tuba. To complement his big sound and deliver his vision of a concert that will span the decades and centuries, he's also featuring big visuals, with a choreographed and improvised modern dance element.

“Being a saxophone player, we have the lifelong... almost duty, to be in a big band,” Frayne says. He's been inspired, he says, by the big bands of Duke Ellington, Maynard Ferguson, the Sun Ra Arkestra (he recently played in Rake-star, a local version of it), and Charles Mingus.

“So you want to do at least one.”

This will actually be his fourth Dream Band performance in as many years (although not his largest; he's led an “80 piece triple concert/jazz band in around 1998”) The Dream Band launched at the Fourth Stage in October 2011 to two packed houses. The popular concert was repeated at the 2012 Ottawa Jazz Festival as part of a big band tribute to the late Jacques Émond.

Saturday's concert will feature new material, most of it composed by or arranged, and rearranged, by Frayne, with both returning and new band members performing it.

“It's the same ideas [as in the first Dream Band] except there's more of it. More lines weaving. So there's sometimes five or six lines because you have more pools of players. So you can have pairs of trios of players weaving their lines against pairs or trios. It's kind of neat. A lot of stuff going on. But it's hard not to resist the block sound of four beautiful trumpets in a choir, or a choir of saxophones or choir of trombones. They can do nice stuff.”

“The compositions are all written for 18 or 20 voices. So they're large scores. It basically took me, I'd say, about 5 months. I took every song I had before and totally redid it.”

“I tried to fight the urge to change things but I couldn't,” he said, smiling. “So I ended up changing or adding or subtracting ... everything. So a lot of new stuff [he laughs] and a lot of thick stuff and I got into what I call the can of spaghetti. If you open up a can of spaghetti it sometimes looks like that. I had to organize the strands of spaghetti into sensible parts.”


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Among those skillfully twirling the strands of spaghetti will be well-known Ottawa jazz musicians Mike Tremblay on tenor sax and flute, Mark Ferguson on trombone, Zakari Frantz on alto and soprano saxes, Nicholas Dyson on trumpet, Mike Essoudry on drums, and Roddy Ellias on guitar. Plus a dozen significant others – essential to the full sax, trumpet and trombone lines – and to hitting the high notes on flute and piccolo (Janet Geiger) down to the low end on Hammond organ (Don Cummings), baritone sax (Sylvie Duchesneau) and tuba (Steve Guerin).

Frayne invited two “heavy” Montreal jazz musicians to take part, both of whom he's played with before. Trumpeter Bill Mahar is the artistic director of the Altsys Jazz Orchestra. He has played in or had his compositions and arrangements recorded by several significant Canadian jazz orchestras and big bands, and was most recently heard here in Ellias' tribute to Kenny Wheeler. Saxophonist Joel Miller won the 2013 Juno Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Recording, and has regularly played in Ottawa, most recently at ZenKitchen last fall.

“I met Bill years ago because I toured England with him with the Jivewires of all things. We hit it off. He's a great guy and a great player.”

“Joel I met on a gig somewhere. Three tenors. I think it was Kingston. Joel blew me away then. And he's got better and better. That was about 20 years ago. He's had 20 years of practice. So it's going to be amazing, amazing.”

I tried to fight the urge to change things but I couldn't. So I ended up changing or adding or subtracting ... everything. So a lot of new stuff and a lot of thick stuff and I got into what I call the can of spaghetti. If you open up a can of spaghetti it sometimes looks like that. I had to organize the strands of spaghetti into sensible parts.
– Rob Frayne

Frayne said that people kept asking him why he choose the Westboro Legion for the concert.

“I thought, OK, there's a dance floor there. And they might have had big bands in the '50s. Then I thought about dancing. And I thought, do I want to do a swing dance part of the evening? Which probably would have been smarter, but instead... I went for a kind of modern, interpretive thing.”

He brought in professional dancer and choreographer Amelia Griffin, who is working with dancers Lisa Hebert and Maxime Nadeau to bring a unique element to this show.

“I gave the dancers tasks of taking familiar movements from each of those eras and seeing how they could use it in an improvisation with contemporary dance. Griffin said.. “So that might mean, that some of the dances they do footwork from the foxtrot – but their arms are doing something completely different.”

“So it's more a riff or a play off the era and the jazz, but keeping improvising and really let the moment take you. Rob had given us such a beautiful instruction: 'if you feel the soul of the music taking you, keep dancing, even if it's longer than the time I have allotted'.”

“I feel it's going to be this really interesting mixture of playfulness and playing off each other, connecting the dance and the music, with quite a bit of listening between the dancers and the musicians within these improvised and era-based movements.”

“We've been having a lot of fun. It's nice for us to be knowing that we're going into this with someone who's open arms about it,” Griffin said enthusiastically of Frayne's involvement.

it's going to be this really interesting mixture of playfulness and playing off each other, connecting the dance and the music, with quite a bit of listening between the dancers and the musicians within these improvised and era-based movements.
– Amelia Griffin

The evening will be emceed by musician Megan Jerome, who has a gift for storytelling in her own musical performances. Frayne is looking forward to her contributing a “jazz storytelling, kind of Canadian rapping” element to the show.

With a full complement of traditional and eclectic instruments, musicians doubling on two instruments, interpretive dancers, and oral storytelling, there will be a lot to grab your attention in this show. And although Frayne will not be performing, he'll be at the concert, and on stage in spirit.

“I feel like I am playing in a way, just hearing the sound I wrote. Weirdly, like playing the horn.”

   – Brett Delmage

For more information and to purchase tickets online: robfrayne.com

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