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The Nepean All-City Jazz Band: never accepting "good enough"

Ottawa's vibrant jazz scene is being created by teens, too – as you could hear at a well-attended concert in Barrhaven last Friday with two student big bands.

Neil Yorke-Slader inspires the Nepean All-City Jazz Band in its concert in Barrhaven on Friday, December 7. ©Brett Delmage, 2012Closing the evening was Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB), which provides an opportunity for jazz players aged 15-20 to develop and share their musical talent. Directed by teacher and school administrator Neil Yorke-Slader, it has long since outgrown its Nepean roots, and now draws from right across Ottawa.

Together with the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band (OJJB) which performs the same function for 13-15 year-olds, the NACJB stimulates the cream of Ottawa's young jazz musicians into getting even better.

Now in its 26th year, the band is recognized as one of the best in Canada. It's received the Canadian Music Educators' Association's Don Wright Award for excellence in Canadian jazz eight times, most recently in 2011-12. NACJB alumni have gone on to study music at university and make professional careers in jazz.

“What this band is about is creating a platform for [the students in it] to be challenged and inspired by each other,” said Yorke-Slader. “They may not be getting that depending on their high school setting. Most of these kids, for example, they're the best player in their school, so how do they get to the next step? And the only way you get to the next step – it's like in junior hockey, you put the really great 16-year-old on the Ottawa 67s and then he plays with older kids and gets better. That's the journey that I see here.”

Every year the membership of both bands changes as students graduate out and others are auditioned for the open spots in the bands. “Every year, it's like a stew: you put in different ingredients and the stew is different,” Yorke-Slader said, but “the general idiom of jazz and the general format of a big band: that stays the same.”

Interested, involved - and all male. ©Brett Delmage, 2012

All-male?

On December 7, the NACJB and OJJB played their regular joint winter concert at the Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School in Barrhaven, to an enthusiastic house. But there was something new. As Yorke-Slader ruefully acknowledged before the 17-member band started playing, this year's edition was all-male, for the first time in the band's history. By contrast, the OJJB, which played the first set in Friday's concert, is almost 50% female this year.

Last year, the NACJB included several female musicians; in its first year, “there were 11 girls in the band”, he said. This year is “just the way it turned out. We don't have any quotas here. We just pick the kids that deserve to be here from the auditions.”

This year, the band needed new musicians playing alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet, piano, and bass: in fact, “three-quarters of the trumpet section, which was a challenge”.

Yorke-Slader picks most of the music for the band, and said he does need to consider the capabilities of the band members. “In jazz band charts, big band charts, you've got issues of how high the first trumpet part goes or how high the first trombone part goes, so you have to know the capabilities of your players and have them in a range where they're comfortable – they're not straining, because once you start doing that balance goes out the window, tuning goes out the window.”

“Usually I bring out some things that I think will work and try them, and we chuck some out and we bring some new ones in. Usually by about the third or fourth rehearsal, I start to get a feel for what the band is as an organism, what it is as a totality. Part of what I tried to do this year is to pick some tunes to actually stretch them beyond … they play the loud, powerful stuff fine and that's often true with bands, but I really tried to stretch them this year into some of the more sensitive stuff.”

Sam Cousineau plays at the Nepean All-City Jazz Band concert in Barrhaven on Friday, December 7. ©Brett Delmage, 2012For this concert, he said, he also picked a Pat Metheny ballad deliberately to provide a solo opportunity for promising alto saxophonist Sam Cousineau.

Yorke-Slader composed three of the seven pieces played by the band at the concert, including several new pieces. However, he said, he rarely writes directly for the NACJB: instead, most of his compositions are for educational purposes, for junior or senior school bands to play. “It's actually quite rare that I will write something specifically for this band in mind, because then it's not really accessible for a lot of middle school or high school bands.”

On the other hand, he said, the joy of “having this band is that when I do write, I can come out to the rehearsal with them and I hand out all the parts and hear what it sounds like. And if I don't like something, I go back and change it. Most composers really do not have the luxury of having a band on call every week to try out all their crummy ideas and then go back and change them.”

With Alex Dean in May

The NACJB will play one more concert this season, without the OJJB this time: on May 3, 2013 with guest saxophonist Alex Dean – the third time that Dean has played with the band. “Alex is one of the premier tenor players probably in the country. He teaches at Humber College. He's not only a great player, but he's such an amazing warm, funny human being that he's great with a young band in every respect.”

Dean will be bringing some charts specifically written for him with big band for the concert, Yorke-Slader said.

Other notable guest artists from previous years have included “great Canadians like Guido Basso and Denny Christianson, and Alastair Kay on trombone. Chase Sanborn. Pat LaBarbera.” American names include Bob Mintzer of the YellowJackets, and trumpeter Randy Brecker, “which was an amazing experience. We've been really fortunate: we've had some really neat people play with the band.”

Playing at The Rex

The NACJB will also be going to Toronto in mid-May for the national finals of MusicFest Canada. As part of this year's festival, the Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar is partnering with MusicFest to present non-adjudicated performances, for “kids to get a feel for what it's like to play in an actual jazz club. If they live in Toronto, they may get the chance to do that, but if they're coming from Grande Prairie, Alberta, they may not. So we're really trying to create that real true-to-life experience for them, and there are several performing slots per day at the Rex, and we're going to just rotate a whole bunch of combos through there – mostly combos.”

Alex Dean will also be playing with NACJB members at the Rex gigs, he said, and they may get most or all of the full band on the Rex stage. “It's a tight fit, but the crowds are all really supportive, so it will be fun.”

The YouTube Effect

Some things have changed over the last 25 years. For one thing, the “calibre of young players in this city just continues to grow.” Students are also now more willing and able to solo, which he's trying to promote and encourage.

The reason? YouTube. “They have access through YouTube to basically the entire jazz lexicon, all the masters. You can YouTube Sonny Rollins, listen to him play a solo. You can YouTube Charlie Parker; you can YouTube Miles Davis. In the old days they'd have to go scrape some money together, buy the record, transcribe the record. Now all they get to do is a click of the button and it's there! So I just find so many of the kids now show the potential and have the desire to do the improvisatory part of jazz. I would say half the band soloed tonight and that's something that I've really come to realize is my responsibility: to let them have that opportunity.”

Going onwards

The NACJB has sent off a steady stream of its members to study music at university, including alto saxophonist Daniel Ko, who won a scholarship to Berklee in Boston in 2011. Four years earlier, another NACJB alto saxophonist, Nathan Cepelinski, won the same scholarship to Berklee, and is now a full-time musician in New York. Other notable alumni include Toronto pianist Matt Newton, Mike Fahie (who runs a big band and writes and teaches in New York), saxophonist David Neill (who teaches at Humber and at the University of Toronto), and saxophonist Mike Webster (now in Brooklyn).

Yorke-Slader said he knew that several of the current band members did intend to study music at a post-secondary level, most of them in jazz. “So we'll see what works for them there. As you saw, the level of ability they have for such a young age is awe-inspiring to me. So I have no doubt that several of them will pursue it and I have no doubt that they'll be successful.”

He doesn't take the credit for that, though.

“The reality is these people have been nurtured by their parents, they've been nurtured by their elementary school teacher and their high school teachers. I have the privilege of working with them once a week for whatever time they spend in our band, and I hope I helped them in some small way.”

    – Alayne McGregor

The Ottawa Junior Jazz Band, led by Mandar Gumaste, played the first set at the concert on Friday, December 7. ©Brett Delmage, 2012

See related OttawaJazzScene.ca coverage::

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Kirk MacDonald shows 'next level of musicianship' at NACJB on Friday
•  Young musicians and Nepean All-City Jazz Band do well at 2014 Musicfest
Stellar year for young Ottawa musicians at 2013 MusicFest Canada

• The Ottawa Junior Jazz Band: a passion to play (video)
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