For his current Dream Band project, Rob Frayne is simply writing what he loves.
"At this point, I think I'm old enough just to play from the heart. I turned 60 this year, and I realized, 'What the heck! Let's just go for it!' "
The Ottawa jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist will showcase 14 musicians at the NAC Fourth Stage on Wednesday, April 18, playing his recent compositions and arrangements. For this concert, he said, "I'm trying just to be myself" – and giving the same free-thinking direction to his musicians.
Frayne himself is a powerhouse in Ottawa's jazz scene: as a composer, arranger, teacher, and instrumentalist. He has led groups like the groundbreaking Chelsea Bridge, co-founded the JazzWorks jazz camp, and played across North America and beyond with everyone from Kenny Wheeler to the Gil Evans Orchestra to the Shuffle Demons.
He has picked his "dream" musicians, from Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, for this show – just as he did for previous Dream Band shows in 2012, 2013, and 2015. Each musician in the 2018 band has a considerable jazz pedigree: trombonist William Carn and alto saxophonist Tara Davidson, for example, were JUNO Award nominees this year.
The music they'll play reaches beyond mainstream jazz. One the one side there's percussion and groove; on the other, classical brass and woodwinds. And all of that's combined with jazz soloists on trumpet, trombone, saxophone, and guitar.
"There's two sides that are new: the South African, like Dollar Brand [early Abdullah Ibrahim] groovy African jazz, and the classical thing are different. Before, I think it was more straight-ahead, more jazzy. This time, it's a little more folk, a little more classical."
Compared to previous Dream Bands, this music is "a bit looser. It's a bit more groove-oriented. Half of the stuff is like that. Half the stuff is like lots of percussion and simple South African township jive groove. But the other half is, because I had the flute and clarinet and tuba, I was all of the sudden excited to use the classical vibe."
Central to the music – and covering both the classical and groove sides – is Ottawa musician Liz Hanson, on marimba and Brazilian percussion. Hanson studied classical percussion performance at the University of Michigan, concentrating on the marimba – and then spent five months in Japan studying under renowned Japanese marimba player Keiko Abe.
"Liz is like the hidden treasure. She went to Japan and studied marimba, and then came back to the States and played in different symphonies. And then found she wanted to play Brazilian percussion, so she moved to Brazil! Her marimba skills are amazing, and that combined with the classical flute and clarinet, I've used them to play some tricky bits."
On stage at the NAC, Hanson will be a major part of the band's visual presentation, as she plays on the marimba's wooden keys with her mallets. That's because of the instrument's size, eight feet long by four feet wide.
"I originally wanted to have two vibraphones and one marimba, but it turns out there's not enough room. I ended up taping off the stage with masking tape with the stage director there to try to squeeze everybody in, and it's just not possible! The marimba is gigantic. It will take up most of the stage. It's crazy – I didn't think they were so large!"
Frayne hopes that seeing all 14 musicians together will be "just pure fun for the audience. I mean, they get to see all these things happening, and who does what and they get to see people look at each other on stage and hear … if Liz picks up a strange instrument, they get to hear what it sounds like. So I think it's really good for curious people."
Hanson is also part of another of Frayne's bands: his seven-piece DrumSwamp ensemble, in which she plays percussion. This new Dream Band is more "DrumSwamp-y", he said, not least because almost all the members of that two-year-old ensemble are also in this band.
Frayne has picked many collaborators from previous Dream Bands for this show, including saxophonist Frank Lozano, trumpeter Bill Mahar, vocalist Megan Jerome, guitarist Roddy Ellias, drummer Mike Essoudry, organist Don Cummings, Latin percussionist Alvaro de Minaya, flutist Janet Geiger, and clarinetist Sylvie Duchesneau. Frayne himself will play tenor sax.
For this band, he's added tuba player Keith Hartshorn-Walton, trombonist William Carn, and saxophonist Tara Davidson. The only musician he hasn't played with before is Davidson, but he has heard her recordings with Mike Murley and seen her videos on YouTube: "I love her alto approach."
While a few musicians are playing multiple instruments (Geiger on flute and piccolo, Duchesneau on clarinet and bass clarinet), he said he tried to minimize doubling. "I like the idea of people playing what I call their 'mother horn'."
Vocalist Megan Jerome will use her voice as a horn in this show. Frayne said that mostly she will be singing wordlessly, much as Norma Winstone did on pieces by Kenny Wheeler.
"She's got a really challenging job – she's going to sing a few words, but mostly she's going to sing as if she was a French horn player, a real horn. So she's got loads of music to read, which is very unusual for a singer."
Each musician's individual styles and strengths inspired how he wrote and arranged the music for this show, he said.
"I've got 11 songs here and every song – like every part – is written for the actual player. It's all new or newly-arranged. For a while I had charts 30 pages long of 14 stanzas. They were taped around the walls. I'd stare at the parts and I realized there's a reason for that – not just to see the flow, but also to make changes."
"It's crazy the amount of what-ifs! I tried to keep it simple [he laughs], but I ended up entering the editing abyss for each song."
But as always, with the characteristic "thick" Frayne style – complex and multi-layered and arresting.
"It's thick because I like to write – high-density. I always just love the sound of a wind ensemble or an orchestra, and I guess because I've immersed myself in Charles Ives for too long, and listened to orchestra music, that's really in my head. So maybe I'm trying to recreate that in a funny way."
Ives was an innovative American classical composer from the early 20th century. Frayne said he sees Ives really "as a jazzer", and doesn't see any other classical – or jazz – composers as strong influences on this music.
But he does always see his music as jazz. "It is a jazz adventure where a lot of the guys can solo. I'm still making a list of who is going to solo on what tune. And I've realized I've like got seven amazing soloists – pretty well everybody to share the soloing wealth."
All the musicians in the band are "musical free-thinkers", he said, and he's making the music open enough that everyone has "the chance to really express themselves. So there's a couple of solo moments where people just get to play alone or they can loosely interpret stuff, or of course when they do a jazz solo."
At the same time, he has to trust the musicians to interpret his compositions in the spirit they were written. "There's a kind of balance there. And I trust everybody will play my stuff like … it's really neat that they're interpreting it. I think of them as 14 super-computers: they're each processing what they have and I'm really taking my time with dynamics and articulation and stuff, little hints how to play."
Frayne has arranged to record and video the NAC show, and hopes to release it as an album, as he did with his 2012 Dream Band shows there. Beyond that, he'd like to arrange another show or two with this band, particularly at festivals, but isn't counting on it.
"For me, it's just the process is the thing. Music is so ephemeral – I do all this prep and it's one concert, that's only a couple hours of music, and then the CD. But I have no big plans to take it to Japan or anything."
Read related stories about Rob Frayne's projects:
- Brazilian drumming inspires Rob Frayne's latest percussive project, DrumSwamp 
- Watch Rob Frayne's Dream Band (video) 
- All together now: Rob Frayne's big Dream Band spectacle 
- Rob Frayne is back, with a tenor sax 
- Rob Frayne Dream Band plays in closing festival tribute to Jacques Emond [video from 2012]
Rob Frayne will bring his DreamBand3 to the NAC Fourth Stage on Wednesday, April 18, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $34.50 and are available via the event webpage (with surcharge) or in person from the NAC Box Office (no surcharge). The National Arts Centre is located at 1 Elgin Street downtown. All OC Transpo downtown Transitway routes and downtown-bound regular bus routes stop only a few blocks away. Routes 5 and 14 stop on Elgin Street close by.