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Once a year, Michael Pytura celebrates his favourite big band jazz singers

Michael Pytura sang the Rat Pack repertoire with clear enjoyment and verve at the Make-A-Wish fundraiser. ©Brett Delmage, 2014

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For one night a year, Michael Pytura is a big band singer, invoking the music of his favourite Rat Pack vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

By day, he's the owner of an insurance agency. But Pytura says he's always loved vocal jazz, and last Saturday was his fourth year singing in front of a jazz orchestra to raise funds for the charity Make-A-Wish Canada.

Pytura was backed by ten local professional musicians known for their love of and experience with big band music, under the musical direction of saxophonist Mike Mullin. It was a glitzy affair in the theatre at the Casino de Lac Leamy in Gatineau, attracting a full house, most of whom were either listening or dancing to the music.

Partway through the evening, it was announced that the event had raised $30,000: enough to grant the wishes of three children with life-threatening medical conditions.

Pytura grew up in a very musical family: “my dad was an opera singer, my mom a piano teacher for over 60 years, and we always listened to all sorts of music. Even in high school I'd have Bobby Darin albums and Tony Bennett.”

But a particular love was the Rat Pack group of singers and actors – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. – “both from a musical point of view but even just from the type of humour they bring to the table as well. It's the whole package with them.”

But how did that turn into actually singing live with a band? It started at dinner, with a friend who was on the board of directors of Make-A-Wish.

“I had just recorded for fun a small Christmas album, and was excited about it. I remember telling him that night that one of these days I'd like to do a concert for Make-A-Wish, thinking maybe [in] 2018 or 2022. And the next thing I knew, the next week, we're in the boardroom and we're picking dates.”

Pytura was put in touch with Mullin, who hired an orchestra composed of nine of “the best jazz musicians around. And my very first-ever performance was with those guys at the National Gallery in 2011. It went from nothing to a lot very, very quickly. It was a lot of fun.”

The 2011 concert was “the very first time I was on stage, and the Tuesday before was the only rehearsal I did with these great musicians. It was the very first time I held a mic in my hand. So it was baptism by fire. Once I got on-stage, it was like I belonged there, I loved it, and I enjoy doing it as much as I can.”

The show moved to the Casino de Lac Leamy last year, again fitting the Rat Pack theme; Sinatra, Martin, and Davis were particularly known for performing together in Las Vegas.

Pytura said he mixes up the repertoire each year. He added four new songs this year and resurrected some songs he'd used in earlier concerts but not last year. For fans of big band or vocal jazz, the songs were instantly recognizable: for example, hits like “I've Got You Under My Skin”, “Georgia on My Mind”, and “The Way You Look Tonight”. He opened and closed with Frank Sinatra numbers: “Fly Me to the Moon”, and “My Way”, and encored with a rousing version of “New York, New York”.

The band has stayed almost constant; most of its members have also played in local big bands including the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra and Los Gringos. This year it had the same musicians as in 2011, with the addition of guitarist Pete Foret, and singer Sherri Harding. Harding performed six numbers in the middle of the concert, including show-stopping versions of “The Man I Love” and “Fever”. Guitarist and vocalist Andy del Castillo, who had performed with the band in 2011 and 2012, returned to play “Jumpin' Jive” and a samba.

When people hear the type of music that I do, one of the first things I often hear is 'I love that! It's coming back. Can't wait to see it!'
- Michael Pytura

Pytura donated his time for the concert, while the band members were paid over union scale. It's notable that this successful event hired a large number of professional musicians, unlike other fundraisers which have tried to get musicians to contribute a major entertainment component of their event for free. [OttawaJazzScene.ca is contacted throughout the year by fundraising event organizers looking for musicians who will perform for their event for free.]

Mullin wrote all the arrangements for the band. He said one challenge was emulating the sound of a full big band with only ten musicians. As well, he said, Pytura's vocal range is between baritone and bass but “most of the guys he likes are tenors”. That required Mullin to redo the songs' arrangements so the voicings were fresh, and neither too high and shrill nor too low and muddy.

Pytura said the response to the fundraiser has been great, starting with 160-180 people in the first year, and increasing to a sell-out crowd of “probably over 400” this year. It netted about $20,000 each year in its first two years, and just under $40,000 in 2013, he said.

And he contended that big band jazz is returning to popularity.

“When people hear the type of music that I do, one of the first things I often hear is 'I love that! It's coming back. Can't wait to see it!' So I think everybody always enjoyed it, and I really do think it's coming back. Obviously the big names like Michael Bublé, and Matt Dusk, and Harry Connick, Jr., have really helped bring that music back to the forefront, and I'm just happy to be part of that in a small way.”

And is he planning to sing more? He's done one other show, he said, but “my musicians kind of laugh at me every time they see me: they say I'm a once-a-year guy. Some of them can't believe it: I should be doing more. It's [hard] to find the time and also the contacts and the connections. But it's something I love doing and hope to do it more as the years go on.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2014
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