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Carleton University Jazz Camp: a happy first set

Sunday, August 8, 2010,  6 p.m.: 45 jazz musicians are congregating in the Music school on the top floor of the Loeb Building at Carleton University. They range in age from the early teens to retirees. Some have played professional gigs in local clubs or restaurants; others have only played in class. Some have years of experience in jazz; others have backgrounds primarily in rock or classical music.

Mike Tremblay helps a student during a class at the camp. ©BrettDelmage, 2010.They are the first class of the new Carleton University Jazz Camp.

That afternoon, the students had short instrument and vocal auditions in order to be placed in combos with similarly-experienced players. Now they are gathered in the Music Department's Studio A for their first jam session, and there  is a certain amount of gingerly looking around and wondering what they should be doing. Guitarist Alex Moxon and his trio break the ice with a few songs, teacher Tim Bedner starts urging people up (in the politest way possible), and a drummer volunteers. And then a guitarist. And then a sax player. And within half an hour, Alex and his band retires to the side chairs and watches as the vibe continues. The camp is humming – and without beer, even!

The brainchild of local jazz musician and teacher Mike Tremblay, this is the first general jazz camp to be held in Ottawa. The JazzWorks jazz camp takes place in rural Quebec, two hours drive outside Ottawa; other local jazz-related camps are devoted to just one instrument: guitar, trumpet, saxophone. Tremblay wanted a different experience: one that emphasized playing in mixed ensembles, and prepared students for the intensity of playing professionally or at university.

It was fun! I got to make a lot of friends, a lot of connections. I got to meet a lot of famous people, like Brian Browne. It was an honour.
– Ryan Lamb

"I've been to Mike's Saxophone Camp a couple of times so I know he has a real focus on – I mean, it's fun – but he has a focus on people getting the work done, focusing on what has to happen," said saxophonist John Graham, who has played in local bands such as Mango Upstart and Without Annette for many years.

"He tries to instill – particularly in the younger kids but in us as well – that if you're considering the world of music there's deadlines that you have to meet and there's a level of professionalism and you have to show up and you can see that in his things about dress code and everything."

Alex Dean (sax) and Kieran Overs (bass) talk about their experiences at Thursday's daily lecture. ©Brett Delmage, 2010Tremblay gathered together a group of professional jazz musicians who already taught full or part-time at Carleton: percussionist Jesse Stewart, guitarist Tim Bedner, pianist/trombonist Mark Ferguson, vocalist Elise Letourneau, drummer Mike Essoudry, trumpeter Nick Dyson. He then added in longtime Ottawa jazz pianist Brian Browne, and two veteran Toronto jazz players: bassist Kieran Overs, and saxophonist Alex Dean (one of Tremblay's former teachers).

Student John Royle has played chamber music for many years, including going to CAMMAC (Canadian Amateur Musicians Association) classical courses every summer, and is currently studying jazz piano with Yves Laroche. He said he learned in different ways from the different types of teachers at the camp: by osmosis from the "icons of the jazz scene" and then more directly from the teachers.

"It was very accessible," said Graham. "Alex Dean – I'm a horn player – he's a humorous guy but I found that even when he was talking about very complex things that are beyond me it was still quite accessible and I could see it. I couldn't catch all the content which the sharper guys were getting but I could get the content. But there was still an awful lot of stuff that I found very applicable to me. I think the overall thing was that it was very well explained – not only Alex but Elise, her approach to ear training which I've always been interested in but never been able to figure out how to get there. Her approach was really helpful, really accessible. I think you can really see that all the people here are educators, and they all have methods that are really tried and tried, they have methods that reach people."

"They have different ideas from my usual teachers," said student vibraphonist Colin Frank, who will be going into Grade 12 at Canterbury High School specializing in music. "There's two percussionists working in the camp, Mike and Jesse, and they showed me a few tricks that are quite handy actually."

For some of the ensembles, the teachers operated in pairs, with one leading the discussion and playing,  and the other assisting players that needed specific coaching. And they weren't afraid to show how to do something, in many cases showing the flow with their entire bodies: Alex Dean throwing his arms over his head to demonstrate a rhythm, or Mike Essoudry pacing out the flow of the music around the room.

John Graham (sax, right) and the Rhino small improv group rehearse.  ©BrettDelmage, 2010."It was very structured, even the stuff with the blues," said Graham. "In my small group, we were doing the blues, and we were doing "Blue Bossa" which is a fairly straightforward tune, and yet there were all kinds of approaches: the way it was described, the way it was explained, the way we worked on it. I ended up approaching a tune like "Blue Bossa" which I know pretty well in a different way, and I think that was really good. I think the other thing was that it was really focused on working together and respecting other people and honoring the music and less of a 'it's my turn to solo as fast as possible now and let the rhythm section chug away in the back.' I noticed especially in the concert, [with] all the tunes, there were arrangements and approaches on how to play backgrounds and all kinds of things that make it different than just playing the head and everybody takes a turn and then everybody plays it out."

In the ensemble practices that OttawaJazzScene reporters sat in on, there was always room for questions from students and ideas for new approaches, but there was also a high level of concentration on the music. The pace was fast and intense. Questions were followed by trying out a phrase, then another, and then eventually a run-through of the whole song, which might get interrupted a few more times for fine-tuning. The second teacher might be talking privately, showing fingering to a student that needed to be coached on a specific point, while the first teacher was coaching just the rhythm section. Solos were allocated quickly with a definition of the number of bars and the basic chords, and students were let out to try something new, followed by further suggestions.

And the pace stayed like that for all five days. Students arrived at the university at 8:30 a.m. to get their instruments ready, and started with 45 minutes of ear training. That was followed by 75 minutes of masterclass for their specific instrument, and then an hour of large ensemble practice. Then an hour for lunch, and an hour-long lecture from one of the camp's guest artists. Then came small ensemble improvisation and practice, and either a jam session or jazz choir before supper. And after supper: four days of faculty concerts, and then the students presented their own concert on the Friday night.

Twelve to thirteen hours a day. Graham has had years of experience playing in local clubs, but he said that, by Wednesday, he regretted jamming at Le Petit Chicago Monday night. He hadn't quite caught up on his sleep since.

"It was long days," said saxophonist Claire Devlin, who is going into Grade 11 this year at Nepean High School, "We had to get up early and I biked here in the mornings."

It was really focused on working together and respecting other people and honoring the music and less of a 'it's my turn to solo as fast as possible now and let the rhythm section chug away in the back'  – John Graham

The biggest effort was in the small and large ensembles, which prepared pieces to be performed at the final Friday night public concert. But while the students worked very hard at both perfecting the pieces and adding their own touches, the journey was clearly just as important. All the students said they really enjoyed playing with musicians they hadn't met before, and the age range wasn't a problem.

Laura Greenberg, who is currently in her first year studying electric bass at Carleton University, said she found "I could interact with the younger people and the older people pretty much in the same way. Everyone got along really well." Devlin said, "You're always meeting new people in music. It adds to the experience, meeting new people and seeing how they play and reacting to that. Music is a really great place to meet new people because people are so friendly and interacting."

Pianist Ryan Lamb, who is starting a music degree in jazz at Carleton this fall, said, "it was fun! I got to make a lot of friends, a lot of connections. I got to meet a lot of famous people, like Brian Browne. It was an honour."

The afternoon lectures covered a wide range of topics. Brian Browne talked about a number of the mistakes he made over the years, including having a mental block about learning to read music. He still plays by ear, which has limited him in being able to take some gigs.

Jesse Stewart used his hour as an exercise in playing free jazz, exciting the students about trying new sounds and new rhythms.

Kieran Overs talked about how he unexpectedly ended up as a jazz bassist, in a complex evolution starting with rock guitar. He also explained his perspective as a bass player in a jazz group: "I try to be part of the ensembles, to support and contribute rhythmically and harmonically. I have no preconceived ideas on how it will come out and be resolved. I can only listen, react, and try to contribute." In response to an audience question, he told the audience it was possible for a pianist (his wife, well-known jazz pianist Nancy Walker) and a bassist to share an open-concept house, even when they both needed to practice. "But it is hard to compose when she's playing boop-a-doop in the other room."

A highlight for many was Wednesday afternoon's masterclass with Cuban percussionist José Luis Quintan ("Changuito"). The first problem was the language barrier – Changuito speaks only Spanish – but student Lucia Guerrero stepped in to translate. Changuito demonstrated a series of different Cuban rhythms, which he has perfected over the last 50 years, on both drums and congas – including all four parts of the "songo" which he developed.

Changuito demonstrates a rhythm to students. ©Brett Delmage, 2010The audience didn't have problems understanding the rhythms – his technique was very clear – but trying to reproduce them was surprisingly difficult even for some of the professional percussionists who took part. It wasn't enough to get the base rhythm; you also needed to put the right emphasis on the correct beat. But Changuito was patient and people were clearly making progress over the two hours. At the end, the audience formed a conga line and danced to the beat to finish off.

That evening, Changuito played with Los Gringos. There was no time for a full rehearsal – just a short soundcheck – so he simply started improvising over Los Gringos' standard repertoire. As the evening progressed, both he and the group became more comfortable with each other, and the evening climaxed with a long percussion solo by him: one musician noted, awe-struck, afterwards: "he played different rhythms with each hand!"

Probably the biggest challenge for most of the students was the Jazz Choir. Only one of the 45 students was a vocalist. Elise Letourneau, who coached the choir, said, "I know that many of you were nervous on Sunday when I saw you, and I know that many of you were 'Omigosh, I gotta sing? No one told me I had to sing! I've never sung in my life!'"

Elise Letourneau shows students how to find their head voice. ©Brett Delmage, 2010So she explained why singing was important, even for instrumentalists: "Why sing at all? You've got your horn, you've got your guitar, you've got your drum. Number One: it's your birthright; you're born with it;  you go out with it. No one's got one like you; and when you're gone, it's over. It's free; you don't have to take it in for maintenance, and it is also the most immediate way you have to communicate a musical idea – to anybody. And I'm not talking about going out and singing at a gig, and calling yourself a vocalist; I'm talking about using it as a musical scratchpad, a sketchbook.

"Think about, how many times in the course of this camp has somebody, whether they had vocalist after their name or not, started singing at you? It is the most immediate instrument you have to communicate the musical idea. You don't have to run for your case; 'oh gosh, my horn's in my trunk.' You just have to sing the idea. 'OK, I get it; let's do it.' Secondly, if you can see a musical idea, whatever it is, you own it. It is yours. It means you've mastered it. If you can sing something correctly – make your brain produce it with your teeny-tiny muscles in here – then it is yours, whether it's a Major Third, or whether it's a Parker riff. [...]

"So those are my arguments for why I sing. Besides some other arguments that are more ephemeral: because life's too short not to. Because there's no better use for breath. But those are the concrete ones."

And then she went through a series of exercises, allowing students to explore where their breath came from, to understand voiced and unvoiced sounds, to discover their head voices and chest voices, and the break in between as they glided up and down scales. Everyone participated, even those who had looked nervous at the beginning. Then came yodeling, after which no one could be self-conscious. After that, the choir worked on two pieces: a four-part round composed of jazz riffs from well-known blues, and Cole Porter's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", done with the head-voice singers alternating with the chest-voice singers.

At the end of the first session, Letourneau said, "Listen to yourselves. I was told there weren't any singers in this room. You guys are cookin'!"

The pieces were presented – successfully – as the finale to the Friday concert. Frank said he thought he was a terrible singer, but the training did help him. "I know it's good, and I know singing is really important to music. It's not too much of a push, because everyone is laid-back and everyone in the choir is at different levels." Graham said he thought the Choir could have used a third rehearsal, because "we had to really push [it]."

The camp was a start-up, and like any start-up wobbled a bit. Royle noted that Tremblay was overloaded and needed to delegate more. But, if Tremblay was overloaded, it did not affect his positive demeanor and outward energy. Despite arriving at 7 a.m. or so, more than an hour before the students, he wore the broadest smile, indeed a grin, at the end of the long days. Fourteen hours later, he genuinely looked forward to the next morning – after going out for a social and a beer with any fellow faculty members he could convince to join in.

The biggest hassle was unexpected and affected everyone: the only elevator to the ninth floor conked out just before the camp started. That meant musicians had to take another elevator in an adjacent building to its eighth floor, lug their instruments down zig-zag corridors to the music school's tower, and then ascend a steep double-flight of stairs. Not much problem for trumpeters, but no fun at all for those playing the double bass. The elevator finally started working again on the last day of the camp.

This morning, Mike Essoudry demonstrated a whole-tone glissando on piano: holey-moley, I didn't know you could do that!" – John Royle

The students said they learned a lot. Lamb said, "it helped a lot with my composing: adding sevenths,  ninths, elevenths. I never learned that with classical. The classical was more rhythm-oriented with simple eighths and sixteenths and here it helped with my syncopation, my dotted notes, and everything. So it really helped to go to this camp: it was well worth it."

Lucia Guerrero (baritone sax), Claire Devlin.  and others practice in their large ensemble ©BrettDelmage, 2010."I developed soloing techniques, how to feel the music, how to go with it, how to follow the progressions well, and be able to communicate with the other musicians. Because in classical it's more about the conductor but here you have to follow everybody, you have to keep watching and help everyone else."

"This morning, Mike Essoudry demonstrated a whole-tone glissando on piano: holey-moley, I didn't know you could do that!" said Royle. He also learned more about back-stepping tritone substitution from Brian Browne. And in this "relaxed venue", he said, "it was easy to absorb and intuit" information.

Claire Devlin said, "I learned a lot about the jazz scene: how it works in the jazz business because of all these professionals telling you about how it works. And a lot of really technical musical theory and stuff like that from Alex Dean."

John Graham has attended the JazzWorks jazz camp six or seven times. He said he thought there was an advantage to a camp that ended earlier in the evening: "I think maybe not staying up until 2 a.m. helps you focus a little better. It's a little more educational."

"It's a different vibe [at the Carleton camp] in that in JazzWorks, you pick learning around the periphery in the hang at night with the faculty there. JazzWorks is more compressed, and particularly with the limited amount of sleep, towards the end you really have to focus hard to stay on top of everything.

Interestingly enough, many of the approaches that were discussed in [the Carleton U Jazz Camp] masterclass: very similar to the work in JazzWorks. And I think that's just a function of the ways to approach the horn. Generally the faculty have a shared understanding of how you get to where you get to on the horn.

"It's not that one's better than another. I think they're complementary. This one's a little more stretched out: it's a little bit more of a marathon, not a sprint. This one had the ear training, which was really quite interesting.

"It's a little hard to jam at 3 o'clock in the afternoon when your blood sugar's low." But it works for those younger musicians who haven't jammed before, he said. "That's more the focus: getting people who have never improvised up and jamming. It was good."

At the final concert, Carleton University music professor and camp supervisor James Wright announced that there would be a second camp in 2011. And at least two students were interested in returning: "It was a lot of fun, and I think I'm going to do it again next year," Devlin said. Greenberg said, "I would definitely do it again next year, and I would recommend it for anyone who wants to get better at playing jazz."

–  Alayne McGregor

Full disclosure: The Jazz Camp paid for dinner at the university cafeteria for Delmage and McGregor on one night.

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