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Montreal bassist and composer Fraser Hollins thinks of people first when developing his musical projects.

Fraser Hollins picked long-time friends for his quartet, which performs at the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival on February 5. ©2013 Brett Delmage
Fraser Hollins picked long-time friends for his quartet, which performs at the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival on February 5. ©2013 Brett Delmage

“Relationships are so important, you know, and I think those things translate into the music. I don't think so much, 'I want to have a certain instrumentation'. It's really about the people. When I did my first record, I just knew exactly who I wanted to have on the record. It was the most important thing to me: I want these guys.”

And his latest, star-studded project, which Ottawa audiences will hear on Friday, February 5 at the NAC Fourth Stage, is a perfect example. In Hollins' quartet are two Americans, drummer Brian Blade and pianist Jon Cowherd, and another Canadian, saxophonist Joel Miller – and they're all musicians he has known and loved playing with for many years.

With those players, “I just knew if I put those elements together, it would really work.”

Joel Miller he's known since they were both students in Montreal more than two decades ago, and has played with frequently. Jon Cowherd he roomed with and played with during his almost five years studying in New York City, starting in 1999. Brian Blade he met through Cowherd, and played with as well.

But getting all four on stage together has proved much more difficult. Next Friday's concert in Ottawa will be truly a “rare opportunity” to hear them – it will only be the second time they've performed publicly as a quartet.

A rare opportunity to repeat “une soirée magnifique”

The first was in June, 2012, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, in two back-to-back shows at the Upstairs Club. “Just getting the opportunity to play with those guys was blissful,” Hollins said.

The reviews were blissful as well: a Montreal Gazette reviewer described the show as “two sets of swinging, cerebral music that showcased everyone’s talents”. In La Presse, reviewer Alain Brunet said it was “une soirée magnifique dont les fruits méritent d’être exhibés davantage”.

“Ever since, I've wanted to do it again,” Hollins said. “It's just hard to get everybody together. Obviously Jon and Brian are very, very busy. But the stars ... it all worked out. Everybody could do this gig in Ottawa.”

And the quartet will have more time to play together. After the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival show, they'll return to Montreal and the Upstairs Club on Saturday. Then, Hollins said, they'll have a couple days of recording there at the Pierre Marchand Studio, for an upcoming CD.

New tunes by Hollins and Miller, mixing ballads and rhythm

At their 2012 show, about half the material was by Hollins, with contributions by Cowherd and Miller. This time, Hollins expects that the music the quartet will perform and record will be by the Canadians in the group, himself and Miller: “mostly my tunes, but some of Joel's as well”.

Hollins will be contributing mostly new pieces, although he might revisit a few of the tunes on his first CD, Aerial [2010]. Similarly, he said, Miller will be bringing in “tunes that you haven't heard”.

The set-list will be a mix of ballads and more rhythmic pieces: “the tunes of Joel's, there's a definite rhythmic element in his tunes that we're playing that's really important. I have a couple of moody compositions I'm bringing in. We have some ballads and more atmospheric things.”

“It's going to be a mix. I think a lot about that, too. When trying to plan an evening of music, you want a variety. You want to hopefully try to tell a story through the collection of the tunes that you present.”

At this point, he said, Blade and Cowherd won't be contributing any tunes, “but these things can sometimes change.”

Hollins said he just felt “really lucky” to be able to play with these musicians “whenever it can happen”.

Blade is a double Grammy winner, for albums he performed on by Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter. He's also played with a wide range of jazz and pop artists, including Daniel Lanois, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan. He's best-known, though, for his Fellowship Band, almost two decades old now, of which Cowherd was also a founding member.

Cowherd has also performed with pop artists like Lizz Wright and Rosanne Cash, as well as a wide variety of jazz musicians like Cassandra Wilson, John Patitucci, and Claudia Acuña.

Miller won a Juno for Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year in 2013 for his album Swim, on which Hollins also played. Hollins praised Miller's compositions: “He's one of the most fresh and unique composers out there. He writes music that's very, very honest and doesn't sound really like anything else that I've heard. He really has his own musical world, and it's very genuine and he's true to it.”

Hollins himself is one of the best-known jazz bassists in Canada. He's played regularly with top-level Canadian musicians that include Christine Jensen, Rémi Bolduc, Susie Arioli, Jeff Johnston, Kelly Jefferson, Ingrid Jensen, and Brad Turner, and Americans Geoffrey Keezer, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, Dave Liebman, Donny McCaslin, Jerry Bergonzi, and Seamus Blake.

An amazing number of coincidences

But – as Hollins tells it – the road to these four musicians even knowing each other is littered with an amazing number of coincidences. To start with, Hollins started out as a violinist, and didn't take up the double bass until later in his teens.

Hollins is an Ottawa ex-pat. He was born here and grew up in Blackburn Hamlet, with music always around the house. After a brief fling with ukulele, he started playing violin at about 6 or 7, getting “very serious about it in my teen years.”

But then he heard Geddy Lee, the bassist in Rush: “that's what got me into playing the bass”. A few years later, his best friend introduced him to the first album by bass player Jaco Pastorius, “and it really knocked me out. I'd never heard anything like that. And that was a first thing that started making me lean towards jazz. And just the freshness of the sound of that record, how adventurous it was, it was really exciting to listen to.”

“There was one tune on it called 'Portrait of Tracy', which is something he just plays by himself. And when I heard that I just couldn't believe that that could be done on an electric bass. He was really ahead of his time, really changed the way the instrument was perceived and could be played.”

Starting with that, he and his friends started listening to jazz: the Pat Metheny Group and Weather Report. “And then eventually I got the album Kind of Blue, and if it wasn't my first, it was one of my first more 'traditional' jazz records. I heard the sound of the bass on that record, the great Paul Chambers, and just the sound of the great musicians on that record. It was really adventurous-sounding. Although that record, I guess, is from 1959, and I started listening to it in 1988 or 1989, it sounded like it could have been made yesterday.”

After hearing the bass play the melody in “So What”, “I just really wanted to figure out how to do that. Then came the attraction to the double bass. I got the bug to really want to try and play the double bass, to imitate that sound.”

He took lessons with Ottawa double bassist John Geggie – “he really got me started and helped me out just trying to figure out technically how to play the instrument. And he's such a great versatile player, in all sorts of different styles: classical, jazz, whatever” – and eventually graduated with a degree in music from Concordia University in Montreal, and started performing regularly in Montreal's jazz scene.

An unexpected room-mate in New York City

In 1999, Hollins attended the Banff jazz workshop, studying with bassist Dave Holland, Kenny Werner, Dave Douglas, and Joe Lovano. “It was just such a great sharing experience. And I think through that and just being around that great faculty, I really got a bug to try and go to New York.”

Joel Miller and Fraser Hollins have known and played with each for more than two decades. ©2013 Brett Delmage
Joel Miller and Fraser Hollins have known and played with each for more than two decades. ©2013 Brett Delmage

At the last minute, inspired by a friend, he applied for a Canada Council grant to go study in NYC, “and to my great surprise, I was successful!” In the fall of 1999, he moved to NYC for about six months to study with bassists Gary Peacock and Marc Johnson.

“I just loved the scene there, how open it was, and how creative, and musicians being very generous and into sharing and doing sessions and so much great music happening every night! I think the first couple months I was there, I went out every night somewhere to hear something. That first taste, so to speak, really made me [feel], 'Oh, I've got to go and do this on a longer term basis'.”

“It was just such a healthy environment to be around, and by osmosis hopefully absorb as much as possible.”

Looking for a place to stay, he phoned up his saxophonist friend Kelly Jefferson, who was then in NYC. Jefferson was just about to go on the road, and suggested Hollins take over his room.

“And his roommate was Jon Cowherd.”

“So that's how that all started, and, in fact when I moved back down in 2001 to do my Masters, I phoned up Jon and said, 'Hey, I know this is a long shot, but is there any chance that you have room in your apartment?' And he said, it was a three-bedroom apartment and two of them were available! And I said, 'OK, well count me in!' ”

“So that's how I met Jon, and wow, it's one of those strokes of good fortune in life.”

He and Cowherd played together quite a lot, informally and on gigs. “We became very good friends, and so we would hang out and go out and listen to music together. I'd go and hear him play with various bands including the Brian Blade Fellowship Band, and other groups as well. And listening to music with him, too was always so great. He has such great ears and he would point out things about how a certain record might even be mixed or the orchestration, and all these interesting perspectives. I learned a lot from him, not only playing with him, but also just being around him that way.”

Hollins met Blade through Cowherd, and ended up subbing on several rehearsals with the Fellowship Band when the regular bassist wasn't available: “that was a thrill, of course.”

One thing that is really special about the Fellowship Band, he said, is that “the core members of the group [including Blade and Cowherd] have been together so long. They've been playing together a long, long time. You can't ... that's something that just develops over time, and there was obviously also just a great rapport from the very beginning.”

“Boy, I hope I get to play with him more!”

Hollins has had a similarly long-standing relationship with Miller.

“Very soon after I moved to Montreal, I remember hearing Joel at a jam session and just being knocked out by hearing him play! And just thinking, 'Boy I hope I get to play with him more!' That day, fortunately for me, wasn't that far off in the future. And so we've been playing together for yeah, 20 years or so. I've been really lucky to play in a bunch of his different groups and I had him on my first record.”

“And we've collaborated, of course, like it happens in different scenes. You end up playing together in all sorts of different formations. So we've had a really long and special relationship that way, and we're really tight friends as well. We live pretty close to where he and Christine live. We're just a neighbourhood over. We go over and have dinner together and share a good laugh. They're like family as well that way.”

Friday's show will be one of the rare times Ottawa audiences see Hollins leading his own group. But he said he didn't see his role as the bassist in this quartet as much different.

“I just feel like I want to serve the music and just play what's right for the given situation, is really how I look at it. Now I'm the bandleader, there is obviously some different responsibilities that way in terms of being the one making decisions about the order of the tunes, say, and things like that, but I'm really all about getting on-stage and everybody collaborating and sharing to create the music and really in service of the songs.”

He was also looking forward to playing at the NAC Fourth Stage. “I think it's awesome. I've played there many times. I find the crew there really good. I find that they're really supportive of trying to really make the best kind of live sound they can. I find the size of the room is really great. It's intimate. There's something special about that, to be able to go hear music in a small space like that. So I think it's an ideal venue.”

Hollins said he hoped to tour and play more with this quartet: “that's just a question of logistics and trying to line up everybody's schedules. Nothing's in place yet.”

Did he ever thinking, growing up, that he'd end up playing this type of music with these type of musicians?

“When I was really young? No. I had no idea when I was a young child or a teenager really. It was really in my late teens that I started to become interested in this. And I knew pretty quickly that yes, I really want to do this. But that these sorts of opportunities would be part of my path – I dreamt of it. But, yes, I feel like I've had more than my share of good fortune this way for sure.”

    – Alayne McGregor

On Friday, February 5 at 9 p.m., the Fraser Hollins Quartet, with Hollins on bass, Brian Blade on drums, Jon Cowherd on piano, and Joel Miller on saxophones, will perform at the NAC Fourth Stage. This show is part of the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival. The following day (Saturday, February 6), they will perform at the Upstairs Club in Montreal.

This story was made possible by readers like you who donated to keep on the scene.

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