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Stellar year for young Ottawa musicians at 2013 MusicFest Canada

Ottawa alto saxophonist Sam Cousineau was awarded the Yamaha Kando Award last week at the 2013 MusicFest Canada – one of many awards and scholarships going to young Ottawa jazz musicians and ensembles this year.

Sam Cousineau solos at the Nepean All-City Jazz Band concert in Barrhaven on December 7. ©Brett Delmage, 2012MusicFest, held this year in Toronto from May 13 to 18, is an annual national competition for more than 10,000 musicians aged 12-25, drawn from the elementary, high school, college and university levels. The Yamaha Kando is the festival's “premier” award, for an individual who has “demonstrated outstanding musicianship, past musical achievements and solo performances.”

The winner receives $4,000 in musical instruments. Cousineau said he would be choosing a tenor saxophone, which he doesn't currently have.

And that wasn't Cousineau's only win last week: he also received the JazzWorks Camp Scholarship (as he did in 2012), and an entrance scholarship to Humber College.

The quiet musician has been playing in Ottawa student bands – currently the Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB) – for many years now, as well as occasionally around town in local clubs. He said the regular Monday night rehearsals with the NACJB – augmented by playing with different people, playing in front of an audience, and talking about the music with others – have helped him develop as a musician.

His talent has been recognized, by being chosen at least twice to play in the Manhattan on the Rideau video masterclasses at the National Arts Centre. Cousineau said he learned so much from the classes with Dave Liebman and with Donny McCaslin: “Those two gentlemen are such great saxophonists and musicians and they're wonderful people.”

Neil Yorke-Slader, the musical director of NACJB, said that, “Sam is the most dedicated teenage musician I have ever known. He sets very high goals for himself, then applies himself with discipline and focus to achieve those goals. He has a remarkable fluency and emotive capacity in his saxophone playing. Remember the name - Sam Cousineau.”

Cousineau is the third Ottawa musician to win the Kando award since 2006. Coincidentally, previous winners Daniel Ko and Nathan Cepelinski also play alto sax and studied at Nepean High School.

Both of them went on to study at Berklee School of Music in Boston (Cepelinski graduated in 2011, and Ko is currently studying there). However, Cousineau said he would instead be studying jazz performance at McGill University in Montreal starting next fall, which is a “such a great school” in Montreal which has “a great scene and community”.

Cousineau is hoping for a career in music, including going on to a masters and a doctorate, and said that he wants to study in New York for those degrees. But “American schools are just so expensive”, and he couldn't afford an undergraduate degree there as well.

But Cousineau was by no means the only Ottawa winner at Musicfest 2013. Three student ensembles – the NACJB, the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band (OJJB), and the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) Grade 8 All-Star Jazz Band – won gold awards.

His fellow NACJB saxophonist, Patrick Smith (Bell High School), was also a multiple winner – both an entrance scholarship to Humber College in Toronto and a scholarship to the Humber College Summer Jazz Program. Two other NACJB musicians – bassist Ben Heard (Canterbury High School) and trumpeter Michael Henley (Ashbury College) – also won Humber entrance scholarships. Smith and Heard are currently participating in the Ottawa Jazz Festival's Jazz-Ed project, directed by newly-awarded Jazz Hero, Roddy Ellias.

Honour awards went to saxophonists Mathieu Tassie (NACJB) and Ethan Hardy (OJJB), and to bassist Derek Scott (OCDSB Grade 8).

The week was, however, far more than awards. Both Cousineau and Smith emphasized that what they really remembered about it was the chance to play with other student musicians from across Canada, and to hear some great music.

Both of them, plus trumpeters Eric Littlewood and Michael Henley, and trombonists Colin Lloyd and Andrew Tu, were chosen to play in the Conn-Selmer Centerstage Jazz Band, meaning that Ottawa musicians made up one-third of the 18-piece all-star band. All six are members of NACJB, and Littlewood and Smith also play in the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra. Lloyd is in the Jazz-Ed project.

Patrick Smith was a featured soloist at CYJO's March concert at Carleton University. ©Brett Delmage, 2013“We had a great week.” Smith said. “Every day, we would have six to seven hours of rehearsal a day under the direction of the great saxophonist Alex Dean at the University of Toronto. And then in the evenings we got to see some incredible concerts.”

Cousineau said he had a “fantastic” time. “I got to meet a bunch of great musicians and spend time with Alex Dean. And the rehearsals were fun, he said, with Dean joking a lot.

The band played to a full house at their own concert on the Friday, Smith said. “That was really great. Pat LaBarbera came out and was the guest saxophonist playing with the band.”

MusicFest arranged for student bands to play consecutive shows at The Rex Jazz & Blues Bar, one of the main jazz clubs in Toronto – including the Conn-Selmer band and the NACJB, Smith said. “That was really a lot of fun. I'd never played at the Rex before. It was a great experience for all of us to play there.”

It was a new experience for students used to playing on a large, elevated stages in high school or university auditoriums. The Rex is an L-shaped club, with a little stage at the outside corner of the L.

“It was completely different. We were very tight.” Smith said. “It was very hard to hear the entire band as a whole with the entire 18-piece band crammed on to that tiny stage. But it was good to be able to adapt to that.”

Because of the cramped space, it was very loud, particularly for the trombonists. “The trumpets were playing right in their ears!”

“It was especially difficult to get dynamics but over the course of the hour and a bit that we played – both the Conn-Selmer band and the Nepean All-City band from Ottawa – we got our dynamics down over the course of our set, and it was great!”

In the evenings, the student musicians hung out together, and the Ottawa musicians got to meet others from Toronto and the West Coast and play in jam sessions, Smith said. “It was just incredible playing with them! I feel I learned a lot about various parts of my playing.”

He said he noticed a real difference in musical styles and repertoire across Canada.

“It was also interesting just playing with them. The West Coast guys in the band, they played very different from the Toronto guys, and the Toronto guys played very different from the Ottawa guys.”

“In Toronto, Humber College has a community school of music where they run classes on weekends for high school students and so all these high school students have just really what I would call heavy playing because they've been working with people like Kirk MacDonald and Pat LaBarbera since they were 14 or 13.”

In Ottawa, Smith said he'd been “taught over the past few years is to get as many standards memorized as you can and really know how to navigate around the changes. So that's what I've been focusing on is playing good bebop inside chord changes.”

Toronto students, on the other hand, are “really good at playing in a modern hip fashion” and the pieces they were calling in jam sessions included “tunes like “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” [by Wayne Shorter] or “Impressions” [by John Coltrane] which are all very modern, rather than the standards which I usually play, like “All the Things You Are” or “There will never be another you”, “Have you met Miss Jones?” There was a completely different standard as to what standards you should know between the Toronto and the Ottawa guys.”

Smith said he was very busy this week catching up on schoolwork and other school activities after the week away at MusicFest, but “I'm fine with that because the week I spent in Toronto was just incredible.”

He will attend the University of Toronto next year, where he will study jazz performance. “I know I want to study music for the next little while, because I've put a lot of effort into it and I really want to just seriously delve into the concept of what is art, and what makes art versus entertainment. I want to delve into the concept of serious music, music that not necessarily everyone enjoys but music that stretches art forms and really innovates.” After he finishes that degree, he'll decide if he wants to make music his career.

    – Alayne McGregor

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