Behind many successful Blue Note jazz records in the 1960s was a pianist named Duke Pearson. You could call him the man who gave that record label its groove.
In addition to being a composer and bandleader in his own right, Pearson was also an arranger and A&R man for the record label, and contributed to many albums released on that label. Allmusic says he “played a big part in shaping the Blue Note label's hard bop direction in the 1960s”.
Adrian Cho, the artistic director of the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra, has been researching Pearson and his music, and his reaction was, “Oh, wow! There is so much incredible stuff here. I want to play some of this.”
This Thursday, November 2, the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra will present “The Duke of Groove”, a tribute to Pearson, at the National Arts Centre (NAC). It's the first show in the orchestra's five-show season in 2017-18, whose subjects will range from iconic jazz composer Billy Strayhorn to jazz reimaginings of 60s and 70s pop songs. The shows have one thing in common, however: in each Cho and the orchestra are thinking large.
For the Duke Pearson show, nine musicians will take the stage at the NAC Fourth Stage – and that's not even the largest show. The Strayhorn tribute will feature a 15-piece big band, and the following “Wes’ Coast Vibes” an even larger group.
This is nothing new for the orchestra: its biggest show, a restaging of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts in 2010, included almost 50 instrumentalists and vocalists, and even a tap dancer. However, last year, the orchestra had to perform in the NAC's Back Stage because the Fourth Stage was being completely rebuilt, and in the smaller room was not able to put on large-scale shows.
The orchestra's marks its 12th season this year. Unlike other big bands in town, its main audience is concert-goers, not swing dancers, and so it primarily plays more complicated and often long-form pieces by major jazz composers. Those have included Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Stan Kenton, Miles Davis, and Kenny Wheeler. OJO also features music by lesser-known composers like Johnny Richards and Terry Vosbein.
And Duke Pearson.
It took a while for Cho to discover Pearson as a composer, but as he researched his music, he became more and more impressed. Pearson's album, The Right Touch [Blue Note, 1968] was particularly interesting, he said, and the OJO will perform a number of its tracks at the show.
Many of Pearson's compositions have a “soul-bop, very groovy, almost danceable” vibe to them, Cho said. “A lot of bop or hard bop – you don't think about it as dance music. It's stuff that you listen to, and, in fact, some of the architects of bop originally made sure that you couldn't dance to the stuff. They didn't want you to be able to sing it, they didn't want to be able to dance to it. It was going to be very much instrumental music, very much jazz musicians' music.”
“But I think around Duke Pearson's time, when he was involved in Blue Note, there was sort of R&B influence, and you can hear it basically in his music. Even though I don't think he necessarily intended it as dance music, that's the way a lot of it comes out. And I guess in that way it's also very approachable, I think.”
Around Duke Pearson's time, when he was involved in Blue Note, there was sort of R&B influence, and you can hear it basically in his music. Even though I don't think he necessarily intended it as dance music, that's the way a lot of it comes out. And I guess in that way it's also very approachable, I think.
Pearson has a unique sound and style of composing, Cho said. “I think his basic grooves are pretty familiar to people, but the way in which he arranges, the way in which he does things out of the pocket is very interesting.”
For example, he said, Pearson's tune “Rotary” (from The Right Touch) is in the less-common 6/4 time. “Normally when you think of 6/4, you think of like two groups of three, like 1-2-3, 4-5-6, 1-2-3, 4-5-6. And this is actually three groups of two, right, that swing, so it's actually like 1-2-3, [snaps fingers] 1-2-3-4-5-6, [snaps fingers] 1-2-3-4-5-6, and so it's very odd. It's a bit like 4/4, with an extra two beats on the end: like 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-2. And when you actually listen to the piece, you'll never think that it's in 6/4. The head is very syncopated and it actually sounds like it's in 5, or 7, or something.”
The tune's melody “sounds like spinning around, like you're going in a bit of a circle almost, that goes round and around and around and around and around, and then stops. Rhythmically, he does a lot of interesting things like that, with the rhythm, with the melody. If you listen to the recordings, his piano is very prominent on them – not in a loud of kind of way, but just what he plays and when he plays it. He quotes the melody a lot. He's often playing in unison with the horns.”
Hard-core jazz listeners will find these arrangements interesting, Cho said. “But at the same time, it's not hard for people, especially people who are not necessarily full-time jazz listeners, to grasp. It's all very comfortable music.”
For the OJO concert, Peter Hum will take Pearson's role playing piano. Cho said Hum had told him that learning Pearson's tunes affected his own composing: “We had our first rehearsal for this a little while back, and Peter came and told me that that morning he had written something – and then he realized that it sounded like Duke Pearson. He had been practicing Duke Pearson and then somehow had just absorbed a lot of this. And then he immediately realized, oh I've done a bunch of Duke Pearson idiosyncratic things.”
Cho noted that Pearson was also influential in many Blue Note recordings in the 1960s: selecting musicians, writing arrangements, or performing on the recording. He's credited on albums by 60s jazz musicians including Grant Green, Stanley Turrentine, Bobby Hutcherson, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, and Lee Morgan.
“So he was always in there in some way, helping out doing whatever he needed to do to help. If you add all those things up, I think the general feeling is that he was very responsible for a particular kind of sound at the time, even though it didn't necessarily have his name stamped all over it. He was the guy behind the scenes who actually injected a lot of his ideas, and was just influencing in so many ways what we're to hear in a bunch of those recordings.”
Cho has been working with many of Ottawa's most experienced jazz musicians for many years. The “Duke of Groove” show features many of them. Besides Hum and Cho, the orchestra will include saxophonists Sandy Gordon, Mike Tremblay, Dave Renaud, and René Lavoie, trumpeter Rick Rangno, trombonist Mark Ferguson, and drummer Mark Rehder.
All but two of the pieces in the show are by Pearson. Cho said he's including two songs by trumpeter Art Farmer because Pearson played in The Jazztet, led by Farmer and Benny Golson. The musicians will be working from the original charts for the recordings – but with somewhat fewer solos, Cho said, in order to include more tunes.
He said he hoped the show would have a fun vibe. “I feel it's got that really groovy kind of thing where you just have to move your body. So I think it will be very approachable for people, and I think at the same time people who are hard-core jazz listeners will also, even though those grooves will be very R&B-ish to them, they'll also get a lot out of the interesting things that he does harmonically, and the interesting things that he does with the rhythm and the meter.”
An eclectic season ahead
The remainder of the new Ottawa Jazz Orchestra season mixes more approachable music with large-scale big band extravaganzas.
On December 9, vocalist Diane Nalini leads an exploration of “La Chanson Française”. The first half of the all-French show features her singing songs by Quebec artists, jazz standards, and originals. The second half will feature music by composer Terry Vosbein from his 2016 album, La Chanson Française, inspired by his time living and working in Paris. Songs made famous by Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Charles Trenet, and Jacques Brel will be played by nine instrumentalists.
Cho said that show has so far sold the most tickets: “We always get a great response whenever we do a French theme.”
On February 24, 2018, Cho returns to one of his favourite composers, Billy Strayhorn, whose music he has frequently celebrated together with Duke Ellington. In the “Lush Life” show, a 15-member big band plus Nalini will perform music from the tribute album, And His Mother Called Him Bill; excerpts from the Ellington/Strayhorn Far East Suite (which the OJO previously performed in 2009); and tunes sung by Ella Fitzgerald with the Ellington orchestra.
Cho said he had been wanting to do a Strayhorn tribute for a while, but it needed a bigger space, the right line-up of musicians, and adequate preparation. With Ellington and Strayhorn, “there's just a wealth of material, there. We've played many of those over the years. But there's still so much other stuff to do.”
On April 5, “Wes’ Coast Vibes” combines vibraphone with the music of guitarist Wes Montgomery and more. The show will open with the music of vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, from his Vibes on Velvet and More Vibes on Velvet albums. Then the orchestra will perform music which Montgomery played with a big band on the albums Movin’ Wes and Goin’ Out of My Head.
This will be the largest show of the season, and with a five-person rhythm section (bass, drums, guitar, piano, and vibraphone) plus a full big band, Cho says “I'm not even sure... how we're going to fit them on the stage.”
The season ends on May 12 with “Songs of Wonder”, in which Nalini and small jazz ensembles will showcase jazz reimaginings of pop songs from the 1960s and 1970s, including songs by Stevie Wonder, Donovan, Kate Bush, and Rickie Lee Jones.
Cho had two separate aims in developing this season: “to have a mix of things there that were very approachable to try to cater for new audiences, and then we wanted a bunch of stuff there that also was challenging to the listeners and challenging to the musicians. For example, the first show is both of those.”
“So we're really trying to cater for both audiences: the new audience and also trying to give the people who are the hard-core jazz listeners something that's really interesting that maybe they haven't heard of before.
"We always struggle with the commercial viability of things … I don't think a lot of people know about Duke Pearson. If you put the Duke Ellington name up there, it's one that everyone can just gravitate towards. An unknown is always hard.”
“So we always struggle with that, with the commercial realities of can we not lose money, or not lose too much money, on a show, versus trying to do the stuff that's artistically interesting and that brings something new.”
The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra presents The Duke Of Groove at the NAC Fourth Stage, 1 Elgin Street, on Thursday, November 2, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $33 and are available from the NAC Box Office (no service charge), by phone, or via Ticketmaster (see the OJO website). Three-concert ($89) and five-concert ($140) OJO season ticket bundles are also available from the NAC Box Office or by phone at 613 947-7000 x620.