Ed Lister still vividly remembers the music which first inspired him as he discovered jazz.
And that's why the 20-something Ottawa trumpeter is leading a quintet paying a modern and exuberant tribute to Duke Ellington at 12 noon on Wednesday – in a show called “Pay the Duke”.
“Sometimes in the modern music we all get wrapped up in, sometimes we forget some of the classic stuff that I feel led us to this point. So it's “Pay the Duke” ... I guess my idea behind the title was just to show some respect for the music that started off the whole jazz, swing thing.”
The concert is part of the Doors Open for Music at Southminster series at Southminster United Church in old Ottawa South. Most of the Wednesday noon-hour concerts in the weekly series feature classical music, but each year there's a few jazz shows as well.
Lister said he first heard Duke Ellington's music when he was about 12 or 13, “a couple years after I started playing trumpet”, through his father, a big jazz fan. “I immediately got into Wynton Marsalis and then [through him] Duke Ellington.”
Even though he didn't fully understand Ellington's compositions at the time, “I just liked the swing. I liked the groove on it, you know, like it was intricate music but it still grooved. It was something. He was quite ahead of his time, back then.”
When Marsalis and the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra came to London, England, Lister saw them live performing a Duke Ellington show and a Count Basie show. More recently, he was watching a YouTube video of the orchestra performing music by John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Duke Ellington – and that inspired him to try organizing his own tribute.
“I've always loved Ellington's music and I knew straight-away what band I wanted to put on it as well, so I guess that's what's exciting about the show: the guys I get to play with, and the music that I grew up playing, as well.”
Lister has teamed up with his long-time musical collaborator, saxophonist Richard Page, for the show, as well as Mark Ferguson on piano, Alex Bilodeau on double bass, and David Pontello on drums.
“I started with Richard. I wanted him on board, because he can play all the way through it in that old Ben Webster-Ellington style. So we put an idea together and I said, 'Look, I'll do half of the arrangements and then you do the other half.' So I already had my three in my head: I love 'Black and Tan Fantasy', I've always loved 'Take the 'A' Train', and the nice rhythm changes in 'Cottontail'. They've always been like my top three Duke Ellington songs. So that was a no-brainer for me.”
Page has arranged two Ellington standards, “Caravan” and “Satin Doll”, and is also contributing one of his own compositions, “Duke's Rhumba”.
“It was inspired by Duke's tune, 'Oclupaca' from the Latin America Suite,” Page explained. “The tunes both have a snaky melody with a section which is punctuated by rhythmic playing. I used to play 'Oclupaca' with a big band and the tune has stuck with me over the years.”
What appeals to him about Ellington's music, he said, is that “Duke writes for individuals. Each player in that band has a voice and the music always respects that – it gives the band its vibe. You could almost describe it as 'casual tightness'. The band is always together, but it isn't always precise (especially on long, slow phrases – each player's vibrato and shading comes through). I love that sound.”
Page said he was also excited to be able to perform on a variety of horns in Wednesday's concert. “I'll be playing alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. I'm becoming more and more of a baritone saxophonist and it's given me a chance to bring out some different sounds that I've let sit for a while.”
Lister and Page played with Ferguson and Pontello a few years ago in their Hard Bop Association group, and Lister said they were immediate choices for him.
“I knew straight away that I wanted David Pontello on the drums. He is the King of Swing for me on drums, just laying it down, just giving you exact time and a great feel. He completely plays to the music; he doesn't have your typical drummer's ego where they have to play a million notes. He's a straight-up swinger and nothing ever rushes or drags. So him, and then Mark Ferguson the same thing on piano. He's just like super-tasty. There's no kind of conflict. They all can read and take direction really, really well.”
“And then as for upright bass players, I've played with Alex Bilodeau so much that it just made sense to call him.”
Lister said he hoped to play this music again, perhaps in Montreal, but had no firm plans yet. “I'm sure I'll do the show again, but, as of right now, it's just a one-off.”
But he's looking forward to reacquainting himself with Ellington on Wednesday. “It's going to be a hard-swinging show, straight-up swing pretty much. [laughs] It's nice to do it every once in a while.”
– Alayne McGregor
On Wednesday, May 11, from 12 to 1 p.m., Ed Lister, Richard Page, Mark Ferguson, Alex Bilodeau, and David Pontello will present "Pay the Duke" at Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Avenue at Bank Street (next to Colonel By Drive) in old Ottawa South. Freewill offerings are gratefully accepted to pay the musicians and support the music series ($5, $10 or $20 is suggested). The Church is fully accessible. It is located on OC Transpo routes 1 and 7; bicycle parking is available on Bank Street.
Watch OttawaJazzScene.ca's earlier video about four of these musicians playing together: