Chris Maskell is an aspiring 17-year-old tenor and soprano saxophone player from Ottawa who has been studying jazz for the past five years. Initially jazz was a casual interest, but now he considers playing the music to be a viable career opportunity. Carleton University's second annual jazz camp also marked his return to the camp from the previous year, and he tells OttawaJazzScene.ca about his experiences at this six-day musical extravaganza.
For the second year in a row, I returned to the Carleton University's Jazz Camp which is held on the school's campus in early August. While it just so happens that the camp director is my saxophone teacher, Mike Tremblay, I had such a positive experience the previous year that I felt drawn back to attend the camp once again.
I attended the first year of the camp after being intrigued by Tremblay's description of all the wonderful things that would take place in the space of a week, and I cannot say I was let down. I was challenged, exposed to new ideas, and meeting some of the best musicians in the country filled me with enough motivation to practice for long hours in the evenings after school, to the point that my own saxophone teacher now encourages me to play outside more often. What I found this year at the camp was a similar experience, one that was just as educational, musically stimulating, and fun.
The camp provides a well rounded exposure to different aspects of music, and addresses important areas in jazz. The level of ability held by the participants is as varied as their ages, and instruction is provided on a large range of instruments, with the exciting addition of violin this year. Each camper was auditioned quickly on the first day to determine which ear training group would suit their skill level the best, as well as to sort them into one of eight small ensembles and place them into one of three big bands.
Every day began with the herd of participants separating into smaller groups for an ear-training class. My group was directed by Carleton University music professor James McGowan, and we mainly focused on developing our ears through singing different chords and chord progressions. This was especially interesting because I became more aware of the relationship of the degrees of the chords in different progressions. When I attended the camp last year, I was in trombonist/pianist Mark Ferguson's class, and there we worked on identifying chords, scales and forms, so this year's aural and mental workout was a good contrast.
Perhaps one of my favourite parts of the camp was the masterclasses run by the faculty members. I had the privilege of having Toronto-area saxophonist Alex Dean present interesting and previously unknown ideas to us saxophone players every day. We covered an expansive range of topics from scale exercises to, of course, the essential discussion on reeds and mouthpieces. While this may sound rather dry to outsiders, the talks often turned into a comedy routine, as Alex recounted hilarious stories and displayed his ability to talk in a wide variety of accents. On the final day of the faculty-run masterclasses, Petr Cancura, a New York saxophonist and programming manager for the Ottawa Jazz Festival, was brought in to offer us his unique insights on the saxophone. He presented what I thought was the most paradigm-shifting idea I came across in the camp: improvisation based on your speech patterns. His talk ended with an entertaining (and educational) saxophone duet with Alex Dean over a blues.
Along with trumpeter Nick Dyson, Dean also directed the large ensemble I was in. The repertoire we played was varied and allowed the whole group to focus on different aspects of playing as a big band. In this, Nick allowed me to play alto and clarinet instead of my usual tenor saxophone, which gave me yet another perspective on big band playing. Alex and Nick have both had extensive experience in playing in big bands, and did not hesitate to pepper us with advice, corrections and encouragement.
Perhaps the most musically educational situation that the camp provided me with was the opportunity to play in a small ensemble with Toronto-area bass player Kieran Overs. Simply listening to him walk on a blues as the group played on it demonstrated to me the profound impact a single instrument in the rhythm section can have to the overall feel of a song. He provided us with songs to listen to and learn, and great anecdotes on jazz in general, such as the original name of the tune "Yardbird Suite" being "What Price Love?" The combo even had the honour of hearing some unreleased tracks from one of his earlier albums!
Our final chance each day to interact musically with others were several jam sessions that took place across the campus. These provided us with opportunities to play with people outside of the various groups we were in and make new musical connections. However, my experience at the jam sessions made me miss the previous year's setup. If every member of the camp could have attended the same jam session, instead of having different groups, I feel that would have made the music much more varied and provided more opportunities to play with different people. That being said, I did have fun playing songs with the faculty, who made anything I came up with sound great, and many participants made an effort not to play with charts.
Every evening featured faculty members performing in groups that almost always included some guest artists. We had the privilege of hearing from the Brian Browne Trio, the Alex Dean Trio, and almost all the faculty performing a tribute to the legendary Charlie "Bird" Parker, among others. These concerts proved to be just as educational as the camp, and people sitting beside me laughed as I madly sent the names of the songs they were playing in text messages to myself, so I could write them down later. These concerts also helped out by reminding me that even though I may have won some personal musical battles that day, I had miles ahead of me to reach their level of ability.
As my summer break from high school is now at an end, I'm beginning to consider how I will practice to further develop my playing during the school year. After attending this camp, I feel confident that I would have enough material to practice for about another 10 years and never feel that I've run out of things to do. For example, I learned many things from the faculty without them having to say a single word. Listening to Kieran Overs improvise on a blues during a combo rehearsal stuck many ideas in my head that changed how I approach that relatively simple form, and a discussion with him about playing in odd meters made me consider the importance of exiting your comfort zone. Hearing Alex Dean blast through standard tunes such as "Love in Vain" made me want to explore what is possible over chord progressions such as that one, and finally, witnessing Petr Cancura translate his pattern of speech into an incredibly hip style of playing on the saxophone made me want to approach the music in a whole new way.
Every aspect of the camp presented me with many new musical ideas and set me onto paths I could not have found otherwise. The curriculum was certainly varied and challenging enough, and the faculty was excellent and always willing to help out with anything at any time.
As was mentioned in the closing remarks of the camp following the participants' public concert, the camp can only improve as they adapt to feedback and improvements they noticed could be made. I enjoyed myself just as much as last year's camp, if not a bit more. I'm already looking forward to attending the camp again next year, as I know I will discover as many fascinating things about jazz as I did the past two years, especially since I haven't heard each faculty member's opinion on many topics. Here's to round three!
– Chris Maskell