©Brett Delmage, 2017
Patrick Vafaie and Stephen Szabo at the NACLB debut concert December 8 at John McCrae Secondary School ©Brett Delmage, 2017

View photos by Brett Delmage of the NACLB performance and of the opening act, Pick Up Sticks

An Ottawa student big band has expanded its vision to the entire city this year – and changed its name in the process.

The Nepean All-City Lab Band (NACLB) played its debut concert under its new name December 8 before a full and enthusiastic house. It was formerly the Secondary School All-Star Jazz Band of the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), and is led by high school music teachers Jean-François Fauteux and Stephen Szabo.

The students “earned the right to have this opportunity by working so hard and playing so well,” Szabo said. “A lot of them are in the band this year who were in our [all-star] band last year.”

He said they decided to leave the district school board because the band had outgrown its original mandate. “The all-star band when it originally started was a seven-rehearsal band. And it was a very small project, but it evolved over time. And it needed a home that we now have.”

Instead, the NACLB has become a sister band of the award-winning Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB), led by Neil Yorke-Slader. The NACJB celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2017.

“With the projects that we wanted to develop with this band, we were thinking about going out of the board and reaching a bigger catchment area for the band,” Fauteux said. “And then Neil called us, and he said, 'Well, you know what, what about joining our family?' And of course when he said that, he's a longtime friend and we were so honoured that he would even consider asking us, so that was a bonus for us for sure.”

Like the NACJB, the NACLB is open to students from any school in the Ottawa area, including those in the French and separate (Roman Catholic) boards. The two bands held joint auditions in September, with the NACJB getting first choice. But, as Fauteux pointed out, there's many more talented students available that the NACJB can accommodate.

Twenty-five years ago, there was just enough Ottawa student jazz talent to fill one elite band, he said – but now there's four cross-city bands: the NACLB, NACJB, the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band, and the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra. “And there's enough for everybody. It's quite fantastic the way it's evolved.”

There are students in the NACLB who would have made the NACJB, but there simply was no seat available, he said. “It only proves that wealth of knowledge at this level – these people are great musicians for their age!”

“There's way more quality jazz programs in not just the high schools but also elementary. I work at the Capital Region Musicfest, and I'm in charge of all the recordings and I hear young bands that are really awesome.”

The students in the band come from across the city, and primarily from OCDSB schools. Almost all the students are from regular community high schools; only one is from an arts school (De La Salle), Szabo said. They rehearse once a week at John McCrae Secondary School in Barrhaven.

NACLB baritone saxophonist Patrick Vafaie also was in the all-star band last year. He said he liked how the band “played lots of different styles of music and how I can play with other people who are interested in playing jazz at a high level.”

The band gives “students who are really strong players in their schools an opportunity to play with other people who are like-minded, in the same age group, and also as talented and motivated to play jazz as they are,” Szabo said. “It's important to have those opportunities to grown and develop as players, and we also get to do things they aren't able to do in their schools, for example having professional musicians come in to work with the band and perform with them. And really be able to do some things that are really exciting. I think that's hopefully going to create a lot of wonderful memories for our band members.”

They also get to perform more challenging jazz compositions. “In this show, there were some arrangements that you rarely hear from a high-school level jazz band,” Fauteux said.

The set list for the December concert included several modern and ambitious pieces: “Ms. Garvey Ms. Garvey!!” by Jason Marshall for the Roy Hargrove Big Band, “Karma” by Nate Kimball, written for the New York Youth Symphony Jazz Band, and “Modern Peckology” by Texas big band leader Kris Berg – as well as swinging standards like “All the Things You Are” and “Old Devil Moon”.

Those songs were chosen by Szabo. “Steve has some highly developed and mature tastes when it comes to music, and I have to thank him for that, because I have to admit that in the past, I wasn't too sure if kids that age could achieve that level of maturity,” Fauteux said. “We had a great example tonight they actually can. It impressed me a lot tonight.”

The band's eight-number set at its December concert was greeted with strong and extended applause. They closed with a vibrant version of “Come Fly With Me” (in Frank Sinatra's arrangement), featuring commanding vocals from Laura Seaborn.

Szabo said he thought that "JF and I would be thrilled if we had the same kind of longterm success that Neil has had with the All-City Jazz Band. We want to continue to promote this tradition of playing jazz music. It's something that we believe in, as a wonderful art form to develop creativity in young people.”

In April, the band will play with JUNO-winning Montreal saxophonist, composer, and big band leader Christine Jensen at its next feature concert. Szabo said they expect to play some of her compositions in the show, and have her perform with the band. She'll also rehearse with the band, and conduct it.

“JF and I know Christine very well. She's an extremely talented composer and saxophone player. A lot of people don't really appreciate how good she really is and how wonderful her music is. We're thrilled that she's agreed to come and play with us and be with our students and work with them and hopefully inspire them to really go on and be even better than they are.”

Last year, he said, Ottawa saxophonist Mike Tremblay played with the band. “To see the kids on stage with someone who's that talented is amazing for us, because we just want them to have the best experience possible and really be as inspired as we are to pursue music to the highest level that they possibly can.”

Set List for the NACLB concert at John McCrae Secondary School on December 8, 2017

  1. Ms, Garvey, Ms, Garvey!! / Jason Marshall
  2. Karma / Nate Kimball
  3. All the Things You Are / Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, arranged by Roger Holmes
  4. Jingle Bells / J Pierpont, arranged by John Clayton
  5. Old Devil Moon / Burton Lane and Yip Harburg, arranged by Andy Ballantyne
  6. The Dreamatorium / Stephen Szabo
  7. Modern Peckology / Kris Berg
  8. Fly Me to the Moon / Bart Howard

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