If there was a Guinness record kept for most musicians in one jazz band in Ottawa, Rob Frayne would be well on his way to beating it – with the help of as many local musicians as he can recruit.
The local jazz composer and bandleader is creating a MegaBand – which will have a one-time bravura performance on April 17, preceded by a week of rehearsals. 20 musicians have already signed up for this large ensemble, and he's hoping for more than 50.
The musicians will perform arrangements that Frayne will tailor specifically to the group, of both standards and some of his own compositions. It will be partly an educational experience, and partly just fun, he said – and a chance for amateur musicians to play in a very different context than usual, and at a professional level.
“[It's] something they've never, ever done. They've never played with such a large band. So this is unique. And plus there will be coaching. And plus they'll get to experience a big groove and maybe for those who can solo, they get to solo. So it's super-fun that way.”
Frayne is particularly suited to leading such a group. Over the past four years, he's showcased variations of his Dream Band on the Ottawa Jazz Festival main stage, at the National Arts Centre, and at the Westboro Legion – with up to 18 musicians in the group, all well-known names in the Ottawa and Toronto and Montreal jazz scenes. He's a prolific composer whose multi-layered music allows many musicians to shine. And he's a well-known jazz educator as well, and a founder of the JazzWorks jazz camp.
He's running this project in conjunction with JazzWorks, which is collecting the registration fees for the band. Participants pay $50, with reduced fees for students ($30) and JazzWorks friends ($35). Frayne will close registration by the end of March, since he needs two weeks to prepare the arrangements and the sheet music for each musician.
Musicians (both vocalists and instrumentalists) need to be at an intermediate level, able to read charts and follow a jazz-style tune with some group improvisation.
Alrick Huebener has signed up to play bass in the MegaBand. He said he was attracted to it because “any chance to work with an arranger and composer as creative as Rob Frayne is irresistible. He usually works with top level professional players, so I was excited that this is a JazzWorks community project open to amateur musicians like me. I expect to learn a lot under the musical direction of Rob and the other pros leading the sections. ... Fun, friendship and musical beauty are pretty good reasons to participate.”
Frayne said he led a similar very large ensemble project about 18 years ago, with 6-7 professional musicians and about 50 amateur musicians, mostly JazzWorks camp attendees. The final concert at the Unitarian Church was at a high level, since it included musicians like vocalist Kellylee Evans who “was just a camper then. So we had campers who were pretty good. Everyone there could read well and play well. And I'm hoping that will happen again.”
There's going to be bits of mainstream jazz in it. But I'm going to try to stretch the musicians, make them really play.
– Rob Frayne
This time, he has three other professional musicians performing in the MegaBand: vocalist Megan Jerome, trumpeter Nick Dyson, and saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Petr Cancura.
“Megan Jerome is going to coach the singers along, so they have an idea of what to do, and we have Nicholas Dyson who will help coach the horns, and I'm going to coach the rhythm section. I'll put it all together and hopefully it will sound good.”
Each of the coaches is an experienced teacher (Dyson, for example, directs the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra), “and so you'll learn something working right beside those guys, and being able to play the songs. And I'll try to pull this off as a real gig, like a professional gig.”
“It's an experiment in a way, but I have done this before. It's like we do at [the JazzWorks summer jazz] camp in a way, but it's huge. The big version.”
Toronto vocalist Christine Duncan has done a similar type of recruitment for her Element Choir (including several times in Ottawa), enlisting singers from the local community for performances and then training them in her style of conducting and performance. Frayne said he wouldn't be “quite as outside” as that choir's music, “but I may use some of those direction-type ideas. But Christine can take it to the end of time and chaotic-suicide-type songs. Mine's going to be more on the happy side, I think.”
However, like Duncan, he may use some less-common instructions or directions or ways of playing, not just standard scores, he said.
The band members will have several workshops/rehearsals, including one all-day rehearsal, starting April 10. Then on Sunday, April 17, they will perform an evening concert at the Westboro Legion, playing music which will “emphasize the groove because that's what people respond to and can play”.
“I would not call it mainstream jazz, but we're going to definitely do “Blue Bossa” as a bossa nova. So there's going to be bits of mainstream jazz in it. But I'm going to try to stretch the musicians, make them really play.”
“And the singers, it's always going to be interesting to see what the singers do. Because I'll use them as an instrument, so they're probably not used to doing that. They're used to singing at the campfire, singing a song, or perhaps they're doing a jazz standard. In this case, they get to really be in the band.”
Creating the set list for this show and arranging the music will be like “building a play. It's like writing a two-act play in a way. So I guess that's the big challenge for me: two weeks before, I have to suddenly build something that makes sense. I totally love this – it reminds me of teaching at jazz camp or at Carleton or at Ottawa U or being in a band. And the people here generally are really positive and receptive players who will do it.”
But the music will depend on who signs up. “I'll know more, closer to, once I know what we've got. I've only got a hint of what I've got. I've got the first 20 people so far. I mean, I might get bagpipes. I might get didgeridoo. I might get 16 cello players. Who knows?”
– Alayne McGregor
Read other OttawaJazzScene.ca stories about Rob Frayne:
- All together now: Rob Frayne's big Dream Band spectacle 
- Watch Rob Frayne's Dream Band (video) 
- Rob Frayne Dream Band plays in closing festival tribute to Jacques Emond