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Mark Ferguson's Next Chapter unfolds beyond jazz

When I first asked Mark Ferguson about his new CD, he emphasized that it was not mainstream jazz, but instead had a lot of different elements. I was intrigued.

While Mark Ferguson's new CD, The Next Chapter, is primarily for piano trio, it also contains five evocative trombone interludes. ©2014 Brett DelmageOn Friday and Saturday, he will release his CD, called The Next Chapter, in two concerts at GigSpace. And listeners will be able to hear how he has combined a quieter strain of jazz with classical elements – but also a touch of Latin and a bit of bebop. It's as multi-faceted as Ferguson himself.

Ferguson is a pillar of Ottawa's jazz scene, whether as an arranger, composer, pianist, trombonist, or a university educator. He's written for big bands, intimate vocal showcases, and his beloved Latin jazz groups, and performed with many different groups, both in Ottawa and further afield.

He has also produced and performed on many jazz CDs. But this CD is the first that's just his.

“I've collaborated with people before, and I've produced a lot of CDs for singers over the years. But this is the first one where I'm doing all my own music. It's my project from beginning to end. So yes, this will be the first one that I've done all just for me.”

It's primarily a piano trio album, featuring Ferguson on piano, John Geggie on double bass, and Scott Latham on drums and vibraphone.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do this CD with a trio was that I wanted the piano to be the prominent voice, because as soon as I record with a singer or a saxophone player or whatever, that voice becomes the prominent voice. So I don't really get to express my tunes the way I want to.”

His last two albums were collaborations: in 2012 with vocalist Renée Yoxon for Here We Go Again, and in 2009 with saxophonist Mike Tremblay for Home.

The format goes beyond the standard jazz piano trio: it's divided up by five short trombone interludes whose rich sound and motifs reflect back on the longer piano-based tunes. It also includes Latham's vibraphone as a second melodic instrument.

“I've always loved the piano trio. Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly – I love that sound. And I've done a lot of recording, but usually it's with singers or I play trombone. I wanted to do a piano trio – piano, bass, drums – and when I heard the vibes, I thought, 'Yes! They're a nice addition.' ”

I've always loved the piano trio. Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly – I love that sound. I wanted to do a piano trio – piano, bass, drums – and when I heard the vibes, I thought, 'Yes! They're a nice addition.'
– Mark Ferguson

The original plan was to have Latham play just drums, but then the two tried playing together, “and I just loved the sound of the vibes and the piano together – beautiful sound. When I heard him playing vibes on these tunes, I just thought that's exactly the sound I want for my tunes!”

The vibes added “a really shimmery kind of high end sound that complements the piano nicely. It sounds almost like one instrument sometimes. Sometimes we play together, sometimes I accompany while he plays the melody, and sometimes he lays off completely and it's just piano."

On those cuts where Latham is playing vibes, Ferguson said he added Jeff Asselin on drums, who is “a really sensitive player” who complements the music well.

Ferguson said he's known Geggie for three decades: “John's one of my oldest friends and I love the way he plays.” He met Latham about three or four years ago, when Latham moved to Ottawa and called him up for lessons: “he just sounded so good that I thought that would be a great choice for my music.” The trio previously performed together in a concert at GigSpace in March, and (with Roddy Ellias replacing Geggie) at Southminster United Church in April.

The trio and quartet sections of the album were recorded in June by Ross Murray at Venturing Hills Studio, in Luskville, Quebec, he said, while his trombone interludes were recorded in January by Charles Fairfield at nCode Studios.

An introspective vibe

Ferguson described the overall feel of the music as introspective.

“It's not a hard-hitting, bebop album. There's a couple tunes – “Paradiso” is a samba, and “You are the One” is a kind of a bebop tune, but everything else is pretty introspective, and that was just the vibe I wanted for the whole album.”

A major influence was ECM albums including Keith Jarrett's standards albums. Those, and several “really gorgeous” trio albums by American pianist Alan Pasqua, were “the kind of sound I was going for.”

The CD cover features a painting by Monica Ferguson

He also wanted to link the pieces together with the trombone interludes, using the example of two of his favourite jazz trombonists: J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding.

“I always liked an album concept, where the tunes are actually tied together so there's a flow of the tunes and they all make sense in that order. I remember when I was a kid having a J.J. Johnson [album with Kai Winding]. But in between the jazz tunes, J.J. Johnson had arranged a couple of Bach chorales for trombone. And I just really liked that link.”

The trombone interludes are based on the other songs, and include material from the songs, he said, although it's “fairly well hidden” in some of the tunes, to make the connection more subliminal. The clearest link, he said, was between “Snowfall” and the trombone piece which precedes it, because of the bass ostinato figure that they both share.

The CD ends with “Home”, a memorable ballad Ferguson had previously recorded with Tremblay. He said he included it because it's a “strong tune and people seem to like it”, but also because “it just feels like a really warm nice place be in, like home. And I thought that was a great way to end the album.”

But it doesn't sound the same as the 2009 recording. “Things evolve over the years. Some of the harmonies have changed, and I added a little vamp section at the beginning. And the nature of playing piano with a bass player and a drummer you're playing differently than you would be when I was playing duo with Mike [on sax]. I don't have to hold down the bass part and the rhythm, because that's covered. So now I'm thinking more as a soloistic instrument.”

It's the oldest tune on the CD. The others were written specifically for the album, over about a six-month period before recording, he said.

“Snowfall”, for example, was written while Ferguson was sitting at the piano and the snow was falling outside. He was looking out the window and playing: “It's very impressionistic, it's like word painting.”

“Paradiso”, on the other hand, was named after the late Café Paradiso, but its gentle Latin beat was influenced by Chick Corea albums like “My Spanish Heart”.

And three pieces partway through the album are closely linked, Ferguson said, although it wasn't originally planned that way.

“For Evan's Sake”, for his son, is followed by “Samantha's Smile”, for his daughter. “And then the next tune on the album is called “The Next Chapter”, and it was written with just thinking about the fact that my kids are both out of the house now. My daughter just moved out to go to school this September and my son's moved out. So it's like the next chapter. They worked really well together, the three tunes, so it's become kind of a suite.”

Another family tie is the cover painting, by Ferguson's wife Monica. Tranquil in blues and greens, it shows an empty rowboat pulled up to the edge of a untroubled lake. It's called “Little Lake”, after a small body of water near their cottage.

A chance to play GigSpace's new piano – and another CD

At the two concerts this weekend, Ferguson will be playing on GigSpace's new grand piano, which he hadn't performed on yet, and was looking forward to. He did hear Bernie Senensky play the piano in concert earlier this month: “I thought it sounded great!”

He'll be back at GigSpace in November – with what may be the start of another CD. On November 7, he'll make a live concert recording there together with his long-time collaborator, Mike Tremblay. They hope it will be a sequel to their 2009 album, Home.

Tremblay made a live recording at GigSpace in June, and he “was really happy with the sound of it, so that's why we're thinking we'll do it there.”

They'll be playing compositions by both of them. “We're planning on getting together on a regular basis between now and then, and working on some new tunes, and maybe some standards, too.”

They hope to release the recording as a CD, he said, but that depends on finances. “If we can afford to do it, we will."

Over the past few years, Ferguson has been playing regularly with the Latin-influenced jazz fusion band Manteca. They'll also be recording a new album this fall, with the recording session set for Toronto in November.

Besides that, he's playing with a wide variety of Ottawa groups including the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra and the Juliet Singers, taking part in the second staging of Elise Letourneau's Requiem for 14 Roses in December, and again running the Carleton University Jazz Ensemble.

Ferguson sounded enthusiastic about these diverse projects.

“You're constantly learning and there's no end to the stuff. It's not like you're ever going to get to the point where you say 'I got it! I've got it all figured out!' I just find it's like a constant learning process. I feel lucky in that way, that I love something that I'm never going to get tired of, because there's always something new to learn.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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