Three promising young jazz musicians are taking a big step this Saturday: their first formal concert of their own compositions.
It comes after their first year in university, and their first year apart – a huge change after having played together practically every week since they were 12 years old.
Trumpeter Emily Denison and pianist Deniz Lim-Sersan are 18. Saxophonist Claire Devlin turned 19 this week. They call themselves The Origins Project, and will present a concert at GigSpace on Saturday, July 20, together with bassist Alex Bilodeau and drummer Mike Essoudry.
You may have seen them performing at the Ottawa Jazz Festival over the last few years: Denison was in the all-star, cross-Canada TD Jazz Youth Summit in 2011 and 2012. Devlin was a member of the summit in 2013, and won the $1000 “Take Five Plus Five” Harvey and Louise Glatt Scholarship Award. All three could be seen regularly listening and playing in festival jam sessions as well.
But the concert will be different. “This is music that we've never really performed in Ottawa,” Devlin said. “It's the kind of music that we would have done in school this year, but it's just not something that you can really do unless you're doing this kind of concert situation. I'm really excited because it's super-energetic music.”
They'll be playing almost entirely original music, she said, generally contemporary jazz. “Emily is bringing in a tango. We've got a Beatles tune arranged by Brad Mehldau.”
“We've all brought in something – me and Emily and Deniz – and it's great because there's a huge variety. We all like different things, different kinds of jazz. Deniz likes hip-hop, and Emily likes free jazz.” Her influences include bebop and Joshua Redman.
Over the last year away from Ottawa, the three have started to find their own voices, Denison said, but for this show they've “all brought in what we want to play, what we really want to say musically to the world. So we're going to approach it with a different energy than we approach I think playing standards with.”
A long friendship which started through music
What the audience will also see is a long musical friendship, going back to junior high school. While Devlin and Denison had met in Grade 7 at Broadview Public School, as Denison joked, “we weren't friends because Claire was cool and I wasn't.” But that changed in Grade 8 when all three joined the Bells Corners Jazz Ensemble run by local pianist Yves Laroche, and Denison and Devlin carpooled to that from Westboro every week.
They both had classical training as well – Devlin on piano, and Denison on violin – but it was learning to improvise and the community feeling in the jazz ensemble that really got them interested.
“I took classical piano for about 10 years before I started playing saxophone and I liked it but I hated practicing,” Devlin said. “I liked it when I could play the songs but I didn't like learning. I found it much too rigid, whereas jazz you have a lot more freedom and I love playing saxophone and being in a band especially rather playing classical piano by yourself. So definitely the interaction, and the freedom of jazz is I guess what inspired me to play it.”
For Denison, “a lot of it was the community. It's a really great community where I felt really ... it was just kind of a gut feeling thing that that was where I belonged, and that was the path that I felt should take, the jazz thing.”
In high school, all three played in the Nepean All-City Jazz Band, where they “got to play a calibre of music that you can't achieve in a high school”, Denison said, and met young musicians from across Canada at the national MusicFest competitions.
“One thing that was really great about All-City was just having the performance experience, being put into the situations where you're on-stage and maybe you're doing a feature piece or a big solo or something and you're in front of a big crowd and you have to stand up and give it your all,” Devlin said.
"We realized we could actually go into music"
They also attended the Carleton University and the JazzWorks jazz camps (Denison won scholarships to attend JazzWorks), where they got experience playing with adult musicians. The Carleton University camp was almost a preparation for university because its daily schedule was similar to a day in a university music program, Denison said.
And that confirmed a decision to try to make music their careers, Devlin said.
“I think it made us realize more that we could actually go into music. Because for some people if they were doing music like that all day every day at a camp they would get so sick of it and they would just want to go off and party or something. But we had the opportunity to do the Carleton Jazz Camp, the JazzWorks, the youth all-star band – all these different things where you're doing music all day every day, and that let us know that we would be OK doing that for maybe the rest of our lives.”
They ended up in jazz performance degree programs, but at three different institutions in two different cities: Devlin at McGill University in Montreal; Denison at the University of Toronto; and Lim-Sersan at Humber College in Toronto.
For Devlin and Denison, it was a matter of fit and “vibe” and the teachers they could study with. For Lim-Sersan, it was a lucky scholarship. Devlin said Lim-Sersan had been planning to study science at the University of Ottawa, but “at the very last moment” received a scholarship to Humber through the MusicFest competitions.
“That kind of brought him to his senses, I guess, that he could go into music, that he was good enough – which of course he is!”
Sharing their separate university experiences
Despite all their jazz experience, university life was a bit of shock, but a good one.
“It's just so different when you're surrounded by people who love the same thing as you,” Devlin said. “That was the biggest difference for me. In high school there was two of us our age. There was probably our group of six or seven people – the young people who went to the jazz festival every year. It was great that we had that community, but when you go off to university for jazz performance there's this huge number of people who like it and who will talk about it to you and it's really motivating and it's super exciting to be able to do it all day.”
They were able to keep in touch through texting and Skype. Devlin visited Toronto occasionally, and Denison and Lim-Sersan could see each other off and on. But it wasn't like playing together all the time.
“The three of us with Deniz, we did all our things through high school – we did all our camps and ensembles and stuff and went through all of that – and then all three of us went to different schools so it's a really cool experience that we all come back and share,” Denison said. “Because you gain a whole lot of perspective going to a place filled with so much music. There's so much new stuff to check out, new sounds, but also new perspectives on life and the things that you learn living away from home for a year. So it's really neat to come back and see what, between the three of us, we can bring together and share with each other.”
They noticed a change when they started playing together again this summer, she said. “It was really funny getting used to playing together again. The way the both of us played changed and the way that we reacted to each other had changed, but I think it's all good change.”
“Because we were at separate schools, with a totally different crowd, listening to different music, our styles have diverged a bit and we're more individual than we were when we played together in high school basically every day,” Devlin said. “Especially in such a formative period we kind of came close in our sound. But now it's more interesting I think because we have really different styles and we contrast a bit more.”
"Just me and my bros at jazz school"
One thing that's different about this group is that it has two women in its front line, still a rarity in jazz. Devlin said she hadn't played with many women in university, although there was one other in her jazz band. Denison said she and a 4th-year woman student formed the trumpet section in a university 12-piece band. In that case, “I don't know if it was because we were both females and the only two women in the band or whatever, or maybe it was just us two as people really clicked as a section and in sound and feel, [but] we were on the same page all the time about how we wanted to play things.”
While there certainly are prominent women musicians in jazz – Devlin and Denison pointed to trumpeters Ingrid Jensen and Lina Allemano, composer Maria Schneider, bassist Esperanza Spalding as role models – the field still has far more men than women. Did that affect how Devlin and Denison were treated?
Denison said, “I think there's something in people's heads that maybe if they see that you're a girl they might not automatically assume that you're super, super-heavy. You might have to prove yourself a little more. But I don't really think about it. I think for me it's just me and my bros at jazz school.”
“Sometimes I feel that I have something to prove,” Devlin said. “But overall people are really great about it and the vast majority of musicians young and old are just interested in the music. You know, they like to hang out and if you're cool they want to chill with you but ... really it doesn't matter if you're young or old or male or female or black or white it's all about the music, which is really great. I'm glad I live now and not 50 years ago."
Jumping in the deep end
Devlin said the idea for this concert came from guitarist Tim Bedner, who suggested GigSpace over a year ago. But the logistics hadn't worked out until this summer.
“For me I really wanted to have a musical project for the summer, because you go to school and every day you're doing music 24 hours a day, and then coming home is like stepping back and 'OK, this is what actual life is like'. But it's a long summer, so it's good to have something to work towards, a project,” Denison said.
“It makes me think of a lesson that I took with [NYC avant-garde trumpeter] Peter Evans. We were talking about playing solo, just playing tunes by yourself with no band, which is not at all what we're doing. But the way that he talked about it, he said 'if you want to figure out how to do that, why don't you just schedule a concert and put on a solo concert? Just do it. It doesn't matter ... jump in the deep end and learn how to do it.' And I think this is like ... I haven't thus far in my musical career (if that's what you want to call it) really showcased a lot of original music. I've done a bit of it, and you have to write for school and stuff but I think that for me this is kind of like a jumping in the deep end. 'OK, let's write some stuff and really put it out there'.”
They invited in bassist Alex Bilodeau because Devlin had been playing with him at McGill, where they were in the same combo together. Mike Essoudry they had heard – a “fantastic drummer” – but never played with. Denison said they figured it wouldn't hurt to call him up and see, and it turned out he was available.
"This is what we sound like now."
In April, 2012, Devlin and Denison did a “send-off” concert at Wall Space Gallery, with several local jazz professionals, playing mostly standards. Denison said this concert would be a “a reunion of that, in a way. Because that was 'Here we are, finishing high school, going off to university', and now this is 'Here we are, done a year. This is what we sound like now.'”
But it will be even more exciting for them, Devlin said, and she hoped for the audience. “It makes a big difference when you love the music you're playing. I love playing standards, absolutely, but this is the music that we have created, absolutely and completely. So it will be exciting for us for sure and hopefully we convey that enough to the audience for them to be excited as well.”
And why is the group called “The Origins Project”?
It was Lim-Sersan's idea, they both said, completing each others' sentence: “I guess it mostly has to do with the fact that we're from Ottawa, and we're returning home to our roots or our origins, and we're playing original music. So it's also a play on 'original' music. So it's a name we might use in the future as well.”
And what will they do to follow up? A few gigs and lots of practice, in Devlin's case. For Denison, having her wisdom teeth out in a few weeks, and not being able to practice or play for 10 days at least. And then back to school in early September.
But, if this concert goes well, Denison said, they would like to repeat it next summer. “We'll see what happens – who knows what can happen in a year but I would really like to if it goes well and they'll have us back.”
– Alayne McGregor