This Sunday's tribute to Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass has an Ottawa link to the Canadian big band leader's legacy.

Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass - The Jazz Album cover
Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass - The Jazz Album cover
On February 28, the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra (CYJO) will perform McConnell's arrangements for his band – giving Ottawa listeners a chance they haven't had in many years to hear those arrangements live. But the show will also include a chart by Ottawa big band composer Mark Ferguson, who studied with McConnell in the early 90s, and was highly inspired as a musician by playing in the Boss Brass.

The Boss Brass was one of the most successful Canadian big bands ever, particularly in its heyday in the 1970s and 80s. Under McConnell's leadership, the collection of top-flight Toronto jazz musicians won three Grammys (from 17 nominations) and three Juno awards. It defined the Canadian sound for big band music for decades.

Ferguson subbed in with the band three times in concerts in Ontario and Quebec. The experience was fantastic, he said. “It was like a dream come true, because that was the band that I used to listen to when I was a teenager. So Rob was my hero before I ever met him. So to get to work with him and to play in his band was quite a thrill!”

He said he first met McConnell when he was 19. “I went to a Phil Nimmons clinic and actually drove back with him from Fredericton to Toronto in his car, so I got to know him really well. And then he hired me for a few things when I moved to Toronto after that.”

And then, in the 1990s, “I got a Canada Council grant to go and study arranging with Rob. At that point, he was living in Bancroft at his cottage, and I would drive up on a Friday and we'd work on Friday and then we'd have dinner and drinks, and in the morning, get up, work for the whole day, and then I'd drive home after that.”

Ferguson is a co-leader of the Ottawa Latin big band, Los Gringos [video], and directs the Carleton University Jazz Ensembles, as well as writing for other big bands. He said that McConnell's example had a big influence on his own writing – “just as it did, I think, on most Canadian big band writers: John MacLeod, Brigham Phillips, and Rick Tate.”

Mark Ferguson ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Mark Ferguson ©Brett Delmage, 2014
“Studying with him just gave me a lot of insight into how to get those sounds that he was creating. The harmonies were so dense and the voicings were so dense – it was really an eyeopener to see how he did that. And how he was influenced by Thad Jones and he loved Gerry Mulligan, and he loved Robert Farnon. So he introduced me to a lot of arrangers who influenced him, which was really very cool.”

At Sunday's concert, CYJO will perform Ferguson's arrangement of the standard “You Don't Know What Love Is”, which he was commissioned to write in the 1990s.

CYJO is featuring the Boss Brass's music, said orchestra director Nicholas Dyson, because “Rob McConnell is such an icon in the lexicon of Canadian big bands. We've played a lot of his music previously but it's time that we spent some serious time focusing on that.”

“All jazz musicians and especially composers have their own particular voice or character, and the way that Rob's voice and character has influenced Canadian jazz music and Canadian big band jazz music is huge. We had to spend some serious time studying it. The kids have been loving it!”

The orchestra, now in its seventh season, includes students in both high school and university. In its concerts it has played music by a wide variety of big band composers, and particularly Canadian and Ottawa composers.

McConnell's music is “really exciting, but it's also really difficult,” Dyson said. “It can be a pretty daunting thing to put all these different things together. But coming off the Thad Jones concert in December, I think that the kids hit the ground running and we're ready to really dig into it.”

Dyson said McConnell was particularly good at creating contrast. “One of the things that Rob would do is that he would change the style on a dime and go into a hokey two-beat at some point just to make it sound extra ricky-ticky. Everything's about contrast, so the more ricky-ticky they make that sound, the more swinging the rest of it sounds.”

When the Boss Brass started in 1968, it was strictly brass, with no reed instruments at all, he noted; it only added a saxophone section a few years later. Instead, McConnell included French horns. That's a style that's been picked up by many modern Canadian jazz composers such as John MacLeod, Kirk MacDonald, and Joe Sullivan.

For the CYJO concert, Dyson has added flugelhorns – the mellower cousin of the trumpet – to emulate the Boss Brass sound. “We don't have French horns for the concert, but we have a couple extra flugelhorn players. The addition of the two horns to the sound is pretty big. And the chart that we're playing of Mark Ferguson's is also written in that style.”

Although he never got to hear the Boss Brass live, Dyson also has a strong personal attraction to the group's music – and in particular to the group's lead trumpet player, Arnie Chycoski, whom he first heard on an album that the Boss Brass recorded with vocalist Mel Tormé.

Dyson first heard that album while studying trumpet and jazz in university. “It totally blew me away. I had to know who this guy was! But at that point the Internet was so new that I had to go and talk to a lot of different people to find out who this guy was. I was down in the States at that time and so doing research on current unbelievable lead trumpet players pre-Internet proved difficult. But through that search, I ended up with six or seven different albums.”

Nick Dyson conducts the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Nick Dyson conducts the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Dyson was also impressed with how McConnell could “fill the sound out, and the way he ended up using the band as an accompaniment to great solos, writing incredible solis and shout choruses.”

Several of the arrangements CYJO will play on Sunday are not typical big band charts: “We're doing one that doesn't actually use a drummer, and I believe the bass player has three notes. And the woodwinds are doubling like crazy. Nick Rivers-Moore, our bari sax player, is playing bass clarinet, and all the saxophones are playing flute and clarinet in addition to their alto or tenor duties.”

All the pieces are jazz standards, he said, for example, “Songbird” by Loonis McGlohon, “a beautiful arrangement that he did that uses quite a lot of the upper woodwinds and gorgeous low brass and flugelhorn sounds.” Others include “Just Friends”, “Groovin' High”, “I Got Rhythm”, and “Take the A Train” – “which is a really cool samba”.

As a contrast, CYJO will also perform a piece in a very different style by another Ottawa composer: “And the Horse” by Rob Frayne. Frayne wrote that piece for his Dream Big Band, and “it shows a different use of orchestration and instrumentation,” Dyson said.

For this concert only, CYJO is leaving its usual location at Carleton University for Trinity Anglican Church in Ottawa South [map]. Dyson said the church sanctuary was large and laid out well. “I visited it last week, and it's a nice space and it rings really nice. I think it's going to be a great sound for us.”

The orchestra returns to its home base, Kailash Mital Theatre at Carleton, for its third and final concert this season, on April 10, with multi-instrumentalist Petr Cancura as featured guest. Cancura is artist in residence at Carleton University's music school in 2015-16, and is also leading a Jazz and Roots Ensemble there, as well as being programming manager of the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Dyson said he expected the orchestra would perform “a conglomeration of Petr's music and some tunes that I think Petr would sound great on. I thought about maybe doing Craig Pedersen's tune, 'The Baron' with him and see what he does. The last time we played it was with Patrick Breiner.”

Cancura already has one or two big band charts written, he said, and they might also include music by other local large-ensemble composers. There could also be some crossover with the Jazz and Roots Ensemble because of the many students which are in both bands. “And likely some traditional music of several kinds played.”

You may also hear CYJO in June at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, where it has regularly performed in past years, but Dyson said this hasn't yet been confirmed for 2016.

    – Alayne McGregor

The Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra will perform the arrangements of Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass in a concert at Trinity Anglican Church (1230 Bank Street), on Sunday, February 28, at 7:30 p.m. They will also perform one arrangement each by Ottawa composers Mark Ferguson and Rob Frayne. Admission is by donation.

See's stories and videos about previous CYJO concerts: