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Three views of jazz at Christmas

Three very different Christmas shows were presented by Ottawa's jazz and improvising musicians this month.




On December 14, Ottawa's Latin big band, Los Gringos, performed their Gringos-style adaptations of holiday favourites, with lots of horns, in their annual Christmas show. On December 16, Ottawa jazz aficionado and vocalist Gaby Warren hosted the JazzWorks Christmas jam for the 16th consecutive year, together with his friends – an accomplished group of Ottawa musicians. And on December 18, radio host, composer, and saxophonist Bernard Stepien and his orchestra presented the 10th annual rendition of A Very Ayler Christmas, a mixture of free jazz and carols, presented by the Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO).

We recorded one Christmas-themed song from each show, and present the videos below.

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Los Gringos

Mark Ferguson has a great sense of humour when it comes to giving titles to his Los Gringos adaptations of holiday tunes: "God Rest Ye Merry Gringo Men" and "You’re a Mean One, Mr. Gringo" were among the songs they played this month. And our choice: "Slay-Ryde".


Gaby Warren and Friends

Two days after his 2015 Christmas jam, Gaby Warren attended a service at Notre Dame Cathedral. When he heard this song, he knew he already had the Christmas song he wanted to include this year in his host band set at the JazzWorks jam.

The Bernard Stepien Orchestra: A Very Ayler Christmas

Ten years ago, Ottawa jazz musician and broadcaster Bernard Stepien had an epiphany. He realized how similar Christmas carols were to the gospel-influenced music of avant-garde jazz pioneer Albert Ayler – and he decided to combine the two so each could enhance the other.

He brought together some of the most adventurous free jazz musicians in town to form the Bernard Stepien Orchestra. Every Christmas since 2006, the orchestra (with an evolving cast) has performed Stepien's mash-ups of Ayler tunes and carols to enthusiastic audiences. The orchestra released an album of this music in 2011, and Stepien has added at least one new tune combination each year.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor also interviewed Stepien at the end of the show, as he was packing up his tenor saxophone. This is a lightly edited version of their conversation.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Bernard, what does it feel like to present the 10th anniversary of A Very Ayler Christmas?

Bernard Stepien: Well, you know, the funny part of it [was] I completely forgot about it! I was not realizing it until you sent me an email, and you wrote that it was the 10th anniversary. And I think that nobody else noticed it either until they read your stuff.

I mean, we're just doing it year after year after year – like Christmas – and that's what it should be. It should be a tradition, for years.

We see we have more and more enthusiastic crowds, which I was very pleased about tonight. With Rémy [Bélanger de Beauport] [review] here, who was on the extreme side on the cello, it was not very hard to be on the extreme side for us. So here we go!

I don't see it as 10 years. I see it as something forever. [he laughs]

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How do you keep it fresh from year to year to year? How do you do different things with the Ayler Christmas concept?

Stepien: Because we do not rehearse in between. If you ever manage to get a professional musician here in town to rehearse your Christmas carols, please send me his number! I'm going to hire him immediately. These guys don't want to practice – absolutely not.

So the freshness is kind of automatic, because we vaguely remember last year, we vaguely remember the CD, and they have the charts – if they don't forget it, which was the case today for a few of them [laughs]. But that was OK, because that brings a little bit of chaos. And chaos can be very fruitful, which was the case tonight, right? So that's how it works – through fear, for this band.

Of course, when I see things drifting a little bit too much, I play Captain here and I start to blow in the right direction and they follow. They know how to follow, that's the great thing.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: This was the first year that pianist Adam Saikaley participated. What did he add?

Stepien: That was a very interesting addition, because Albert Ayler had a piano player, doing mostly arpeggios going up and down, up and down, up and down. Adam was doing a little bit more than arpeggios – although I told him to do that – and that was fine. I found it really ... especially when I played some of the solo things, at least I have something to fall back on. It's like playing at Vineyards: you have a way to fall back on something straight. So, yes, I was very happy with his addition and I hope he's coming next year.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me how you do the mash-ups.

Stepien: The mash-up is very simple. You take little fragments of one tune, and you insert them in the other tune where it's harmonically going and working. That's what we did with the first tune, because frankly mashing up “Santa Claus is coming to Town” with “The Truth is Marching In” was very strange. But it works!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you have an idea of what you want to add for next year?

Stepien: Well, there's always the Jingle Bells story, right? I'm very happy with what happened to “Santa Claus Coming to Town” because I was not expecting it to mash that well with the Ayler tune, especially since the Ayler tune is a very slow tune, a very lyrical tune, while you know “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is a very Hollywood, up-tempo tune.

But, no, we can always do something with these things. And I'm certainly looking for 20th century tunes to mash up with Ayler.


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