One of Ottawa's busiest jazz musicians returns to one of his favourite roles on Thursday – as a large ensemble composer and bandleader – after a break of five years.

Drummer Mike Essoudry will bring a stack of new compositions to the NAC Fourth Stage that evening, along with a new sextet to perform them. In February, 2010, he appeared there in a similar concert with his former octet.

Mike Essoudry reviews music at his septet performance at le Petit Chicago ©2010 Brett Delmage
Mike Essoudry reviews music at his septet performance at le Petit Chicago ©2010 Brett Delmage
It's an evening he's been planning for a long time. He wrote most of the music at least two years ago, he booked the hall last August, and he's been working with the musicians for several months. But that's Essoudry's style: lots of preparation to get everything just right.

“I remember that with the octet, it was always, 'OK is this going to be a train-wreck?' Because we'd have one rehearsal for these eight people for fairly complex things. So it was always tough for me because I'm always listening because I can hear it all. It's like, 'OK, how do I get to signal people from the drumkit – you need to be here, you need to be here.' How do I do that, on stage, performing?”

But he's a lot more secure with this group because they've had enough time to work together: “That means when I go to play the drums, I feel really comfortable playing my own music. I'm not too too worried about everybody else. That's nice.”

The group is all musicians from Ottawa, whom Essoudry has played with before in many different contexts. He picked them very deliberately to get the exact mix of sounds he needed for the music.

“It's not enough that this is a great player ... I mean everybody's a great player in this band. But I was really thinking about the sound.”

Central to that sound is alto saxophonist Zakari Frantz, whom Essoudry has played with for many years, including in the weekly host band at Le Petit Chicago. “I really love Zak's sound. It's fantastic on the alto and soprano. He's a really strong reader, a really strong soloist.He's always just checking out stuff.”

He's equally complimentary about other band members: pianist Steve Boudreau, guitarist Marc-André Seguin, tenor saxophonist Vince Rimbach, and young double bassist Ben Heard. Essoudry picked Heard after a search of several months, when his long-time bass partner, Joe Hincke, was injured last fall and had to drop out of the sextet.

How would Essoudry describe the music they'll be performing? It won't be quiet, but it won't be blowing out anyone's eardrums, either. “Not ridiculously loud. A good loud.”

“One of my heroes for writing and for playing drums is Brian Blade. So a lot of the stuff is along the lines of the Brian Blade Fellowship Band type of feeling. It's fairly organic.”

Another influence is Brad Mehldau, and in particular his 2002 album, Largo, which combined the classic piano trio with woodwinds and brass, and with drum and bass grooves.

And particularly important is the underlying groove feel. “There's some pretty groovy stuff – and that's what I'm playing a lot of these days, more groove-oriented stuff. There are some swing things I'm doing, but there are groove parts in them.”

Mike Essoudry goes over the charts with Don Cummings at his septet performance at le Petit Chicago ©2010 Brett Delmage
Mike Essoudry goes over the charts with Don Cummings at his septet performance at le Petit Chicago ©2010 Brett Delmage
All the sextet members are “good strong time players, who know how to groove well and that's very important. That's a very important thing.”

Part of that emphasis on groove, he said, has likely come from his regular collaboration with Hammond organist Don Cummings in their Bumpin' Binary duo, playing 60s and 70s organ jazz – “getting that big heavy sort of sound, that big swing, that deep groovy thing that's happening.”

But there will be one exception: “There's one odd-time song in this, and it's something that's been kicking around actually for a long time. That's just an influence for me just wanting to have a really kind of rootsy vibe.”

Essoudry will also include several pieces he played with his octet, including from his 2009 CD, Passage – providing some continuity from that project. “There are tunes from it that I really, really like and I wish I could have had more opportunities to play. So I decided I'd definitely bring those back, because I thought they were strong melodically, and I could make them work as a sextet easily. So I rearranged them for this group.”

In 2010, the octet played a series of gigs around Ottawa, including at the jazz festival, but Essoudry found it was difficult to organize a group with members from both Ottawa and Montreal. With an all-Ottawa sextet, he said he hoped to perform more regularly, maybe three or four times a year.

If you don't make Thursday's show, don't count on seeing the sextet again right away. Essoudry said it's difficult to find a paying location which can accommodate six musicians on-stage, although he is looking for opportunities, including jazz festivals.

“Just more getting out and doing more playing with the band would be nice. For a jazz band that size, it's trickier. There aren't many options. GigSpace maybe is possible, [but] it's tight for six people in there.”

But he's committed to the sextet and the opportunities it gives him to write certain types of music. “I have a piano in my basement now so I'm doing a lot of writing with that and so I'm excited about [that]. It just gives me an opportunity to do things and it's nice to have a working band that is located in Ottawa.”

“So I'll get three or four tunes together and say 'Would you guys want to do this? I have some tunes together, maybe we can play them?' And then we can work to try to have something booked.”

You will have lots of opportunities in the next few months to hear Essoudry in other groups. Bumpin' Binary will play every Sunday this month at the Elmdale Oyster House, as well as on March 12 at Mugshots. Essoudry is playing in Ed Lister's Quartet at the Monday late-night sessions at Le Petit Chicago this month, and with Adam Saikaley's Quartet on the third Saturday of the month at Mugshots.

In April, he's part of his wife Megan Jerome's Together Ensemble, which will play every Sunday evening at Irene's, and he's performing four duo concerts at Mugshots on Thursdays with different local musicians. On April 25, he'll be part of Rob Frayne's Dream Band.

Last Saturday, Essoudry appeared with the Rake-star Arkestra in a well-received show at Mugshots. He said that that group hoped to schedule more appearances as well.

So he has lots going on?

“It's great! And I love it. It's super-fun.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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