Diane Nalini ©Brett Delmage, 2018
Diane Nalini will sing the string arrangements which Nelson Riddle created for Ella Fitzgerald  ©Brett Delmage, 2018
Mike Tremblay ©Brett Delmage, 2018
Mike Tremblay will improvise on his saxophone over a chamber orchestra as he recreates Stan Getz's album Focus  ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Strings will hold sway as the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra (OJO) recreates classic jazz albums this week.

Instead of its usual big band or jazz ensemble lineup, OJO's “Strings in Focus” concert on Saturday will feature a chamber orchestra: six violinists, three viola players, two cellists, one bassist, and one harpist, plus piano and drums, under the baton of Angus Armstrong.

In the first set, they'll recreate Nelson Riddle's lush arrangements for Ella Fitzgerald's Songbook albums, supporting vocalist Diane Nalini. In the second set, they'll perform all of Stan Getz's 1961 album, Focus, with Ottawa saxophonist Mike Tremblay soloing against the strings.

For both Nalini and Tremblay, this is music close to their hearts. For Nalini, Ella Fitzgerald was a singer whom she grew up listening to and her “first jazz crush”. For Tremblay, it's an album which he was immediately amazed by when he first heard it at age 18.

It's a project which OJO artistic director Adrian Cho had been hoping to bring to the stage for several years.

“I think many groups, and especially many jazz orchestras, have a definition of jazz that is too limiting,” Cho says. “There’s so much more than what people consider to be in the jazz mainstream. I’m also interested in anything with a different sound other [than] the instruments you typically find in jazz.”

Tremblay recollects that Cho first mentioned the idea of recreating the Getz album to him three or four years ago. It was an idea he enthusiastically endorsed: “It's such a beautiful time piece of Stan Getz. It's just great! It was so different from a lot of the other regular Stan Getz quartet albums. To hear him play over this was just amazing.”

“I'm honoured to be asked to play on this. I don't know if it's ever been done in Canada before. It's so nice that Adrian was able to get hold of the original scores.”

When Cho confirmed it for this season, “I put the dates in my book right away and I'm really looking forward to it.”

Focus is not a typical jazz album – nor even a typical album by Getz, who is better known for playing bebop, cool jazz, and bossa nova. Its tunes include elements of classical music – what's been called “Third Stream”; one piece even contains echoes of a Béla Bartok composition. Each tune was conceived as a “fairytale scene”: the opening number is called “I'm Late, I'm Late”, from the White Rabbit's song in Alice in Wonderland, while another is entitled “Once Upon a Time”.

And while its score meticulously details the strings' parts, it leaves the saxophone part wide open – a deliberate choice by composer Eddie Sauter to give maximum room for Getz to stretch out. “Pretty much everything Stan Getz played was improvised whereas the rest of the ensemble is playing written parts so it’s an interesting juxtaposition,” Cho said.

“My part is really just chord changes. There's nothing written for me, other than chord changes – and so I just react to what I'm hearing,” Tremblay explained. The score includes cues for the saxophone sections, but no melodies.

So how is he preparing for the show? “I'm just trying to be prepared with the chord progressions – almost mechanically so that there's no problem getting through these chord changes. So I'm going to be thinking less about the chord changes, and more about listening and just reacting to what I'm hearing. That's the communication thing that happens in jazz – a group of players playing and they're just communicating with the material. The more they think about the material, the less they're able to communicate. The less they think about the material, and they really have it down and it's automatic, then the more they are free to communicate.”

“So I'm just really trying to run the changes. As I'm practicing the stuff, I'm just doing gymnastics, negotiating the chord changes tune after tune after tune so that I can really get the flow down, and I won't have to think about it so much when it's time to play.”

He emphasized he would not be copying Getz's solos. “I've stopped listening to Focus now, because I just don't want my mind to go and start stealing little riffs in certain places.”

Transcribing Getz's solos would be a good learning exercise, he said, but would not work in concert.

“I think if I tried to do that, there's just no way. I'd just be a pale comparison. I would never do it justice, no matter how much time I put into it. I'm not Stan Getz. There was only one. So I'm going to do my own thing. I tried to think of what would Joel Frahm do if he was asked to do this. Or what would Mike Murley do if he was asked to do this – and it would sound like Mike Murley. He would do his thing on it. So that's what I'm going to try and do. Just pay respect to the fact that this is an incredible piece of music.”

Cho said he was looking forward to hearing what Tremblay produced.

“Whenever there is a reference recording like the one Getz made, it’s always very interesting to see what it will sound like with a different soloist, such as Mike in this case. This is similar to the experience we had when we did Miles Ahead with Lina Allemano about ten years ago. We’re all so used to hearing Miles Davis playing on the recording but Lina did her own thing and it was just incredible to hear the same ensemble parts but a completely different solo part.”

Tremblay said he was glad that this show had been scheduled at this time, after he had been honing his skills in a series of major shows and recordings in the last two months.

“I think I'm in a really good place now playing-wise because Mark [Ferguson] and I just got back from Toronto on the 23rd of December. We recorded a new album with Terry Clarke and Dave Young. I worked really hard to get up for that and the studio recording – we had two full days – and it went really well. And I went from there into a musical at the [National] Arts Centre. We were doing Beautiful, and I had to stay up for that. There was no break.”

He followed that immediately with a three-day run with the NAC Orchestra playing a Pops concert (“Women Rock”), and then immediately afterwards began rehearsals for Focus.

“A lot of times as a saxophone player, how do we get up to our peak? How do we get up to where we're playing as well as we can play? And it's just time, time on the instrument, time doing the right kind of gigs, and this Focus thing is coming at exactly the right time! I would have hated it to be on the other end. So it's nice – I feel like I'm going into it fresh, even though I've had the music for a couple months.”

The musicians will have two rehearsals before the show, which will be challenging, Tremblay said. “It's a lot of material to get through for the strings, and some really difficult material. There's a lot of really difficult passages as far as what's written there, for them to get together in two rehearsals. But Adrian's chosen string players that can easily do that, so it's just a matter of getting everybody on the same page over the two rehearsals.”

Cho said the strings will include musicians who have performed with OJO before, including violinists Laura Nerenberg and Brigitte Amyot, and cellist Dan Parker. Nerenberg has also performed in local jazz groups, most recently in ensembles led by Rob Frayne and Martine Courage.

Tremblay said that Armstrong has been comparing the written score with what's on the recording and discovered “there were some time changes, some tempos that are marked on the original parts that were not done in the studio. He's been diligently working on that to make sure that we're able to do pretty much what you hear on the recording.”

“So that's what we're aiming for. And then he's been sending me questions like, 'Listen, this says this in the score. They do this on the recording. What would you like to do at this particular moment?' ”

The entire album is about 40 minutes long, and Tremblay said he'd be treating it as “one long story. I'm going to get lost in it for sure. I'll just be playing and listening and playing and listening. When we finally get going on it, it should be just one colour and one theme after another. And sometimes the themes get a little more quiet and reflective, and other times it's pretty aggressive.”

Encasing vocals in strings

Vocalist Diane Nalini said that her section of this concert came about because Cho wanted to “make best use of this wonderful string section” – and remembered the string arrangements which Nelson Riddle had written for vocalist Ella Fitzgerald.

Many of Fitzgerald's Songbook albums, which pay tribute to Great American Songbook composers such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hart, include tunes arranged for a string orchestra. “And [Adrian] was able to locate enough of the arrangements that just involved a pared down rhythm section and a string section so that we could use the same instrumentation as for the second half of the show.”

They're songs Nalini has had a lifelong attachment to.

“Ella was my first love when I was a little girl. My dad was a huge jazz fan and I’ve been listening to jazz literally since I was born, probably in the womb. And when I was a very little girl, my mom says that I started to sing and talk at the same time.

“And she caught me red-handed. or red-eared or whatever you call it, when I was two or three. She walked in on me and I had the headphones on. I was listening to Ella, the Ella in Berlin live album, and [the song] “Lorelei”. But she couldn’t hear what I was listening to. She could just hear me singing along. I was singing in a child’s voice, and I didn’t know what any of the words meant.”

Some of the lyrics to that song were distinctly adult, and her mother was shocked to hear her singing them. “But I didn’t know what they meant, right? I loved Ella’s voice. I loved jazz.”

Growing up, Nalini would dive into her father's record collection and “just devour” the Fitzgerald albums. “And so Ella is my first jazz crush, my first love in jazz. And so it’s very sentimentally meaningful for me that I get to sing these songs.”

Her father will be in audience for Saturday's show to hear her sing those songs, she said, making her feel “very excited and touched”.

The Fitzgerald numbers will include “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, “This Time the Dream’s on Me”, "For You, For Me, For Evermore" (“I love that it’s very sentimental”), and the sultry Latin tune “Close Your Eyes”. She'll also sing the Etta James arrangement with strings of “At Last”.

Nalini said she would work with conductor Angus Armstrong to ensure the strings follow her phrasing and have the correct tempo. “Some of these tunes, it’s beautiful the way that they were recorded but I consider some of the tempos to just be a little bit too slow for my taste. It’s a very subjective thing.

Some of the ballads are almost “bordering on dirge-like. I would like to take it a little bit up from there [she laughs]. But it’s so dependent. What’s cool about jazz is there’s no right or wrong answer, there’s only, in this case, one's own preference. So I’ll be able to discuss that with Angus ahead of time and just make sure we’re on the same page for keeping these tunes in the right spirit and being respectful of the lyrics – being respectful of the arrangement as well because sometimes there’s a very lush orchestration and you don’t want to take it too fast.”

Nalini said she had previously worked with several of the string players, including Nerenberg and Parker. “I love the fact that a lot of the string players are very adventurous. They’re open to doing jazz and to doing stuff that may in some instances put them in a context that they might be less familiar with, in a musical style that they’re less familiar with. But most of them really throw themselves into it with great enthusiasm and enjoyment and commitment and it’s really delightful.”

She was also delighted to be singing with harp, for the first time in 15 years. “It is so cool! It's interesting that you don't need a lot [of harp]. It's almost like cooking with spice: even the slightest amount of it and you already taste it. It's very impactful. The sound is so unique. You don't realize how much you miss it until you hear it coming back, and go, 'Oh wow! That's lovely.' ”

Interspersed with the songs with strings will be numbers with just a rhythm section, Nalini said – “just to keep some variety in the tempo and orchestration and to keep it interesting for the audience.”

They will include her own arrangement of the chanson “Il n'y a plus d'après” made famous by French torch singer Juliette Greco, “a very wistful song about lovers meeting several years after their relationship has ended. We’re we’re meeting in Saint-Germain-des-Prés but the neighbourhood isn’t the same anymore, the coffee doesn’t taste the same, just like our love isn’t the same anymore. It’s quite sentimental and nostalgic.” She'll also sing “Canção de Amor” by Brazilian samba singer Elizeth Cardoso.

“And we’re also going to do one tune that I asked Adrian if we could sneak it in at the last minute because I was very saddened last month when Nancy Wilson died. She was a big idol of mine. I really loved her work with Cannonball Adderley and George Shearing. We’re going to do the song “Let’s live again” in tribute to her.”

Like Tremblay, Nalini does not want her set to sound like a straight copy.

“I’m working hard to internalize the arrangements, pay respect to the work, but also to avoid falling into the trap of trying to imitate Ella – which is hard because she is my first love. [She is the] singer that I grew up listening to probably the most, even though I also loved Billie and Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae and Anita O'Day and Blossom Dearie and all these others. So I have to be very diligent.”

“What’s good is even though I know all these songs from when I was a child, it's not stuff I've listened to as recently, so I’ve been listening to the arrangements again after many, many years. It’s kind of fun, it’s like coming back to an old friend but after you’ve acquired some new wisdom in your life and you can see things from a different perspective. And so now I feel like I’ve moved on enough as a singer to be more confident in trying to shape my own interpretation, and not fall into some kind of dangerous imitation zone.”

“That’s my main concern: to be respectful of the material while also trying to shape my own interpretation.”

The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra will present Strings in Focus at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage, on Saturday, January 19, 2019 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $37.50 (from the NAC Box Office with no service charge, and on the NAC website).

Get there! The National Arts Centre is located at 1 Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa; all downtown-bound OC Transpo routes, including those on the Transitway, stop within two blocks of the NAC. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!