You've probably heard saxophones in a jazz quintet, or as the front line of a big band. But this Sunday afternoon, saxophones will star in their own show, without the other instruments.

©Brett Delmage, 2019
Mike Tremblay: "If you're a soprano player you better be used to playing right up to the top register"
©Brett Delmage, 2019

Saxophone ensembles from Carleton University's music program and two local high schools will present a two-hour concert of jazz, classical, and rock music arranged for saxophone quartet and saxophone choir. A sax tentet will have a rhythm section assisting it, but other than that, it's all saxophone.

The show will include an 13-sax performance of Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody” – with dance moves – conducted and choreographed by Carleton student Rebecca Cowal. Other pieces will come from Piazzolla and Vivaldi on the classical side, to jazz composers Bob Mintzer of the Yellowjackets and Ed Calle of the Miami Saxophone Quartet.

Directing it all is Mike Tremblay, one of the best-known musicians and music educators in Ottawa's jazz scene. This is his 25th year teaching in Carleton's music school. He started with one student – Brian Asselin, who's now a well-known composer and bandleader in his own right. A decade later, he was able to field one sax quartet – as long as he was the fourth player. Then there were two quartets, and now the school has four quartets which rehearse every week with Tremblay.

The show is the culmination of the students' work this term. Saxophone lovers from the general public are welcome to listen to their performance. interviewed Tremblay on Monday about the concert, why it's great to listen to an all-sax show, and what saxophonists learn from playing together. This is an edited version of our interview. Do you vary the standard saxophone quartet – soprano, alto, tenor, baritone – at all?

Mike Tremblay: In some years, we'll have alto, alto, tenor, bari. But the goal, just for repertoire, is to have soprano, alto, tenor, baritone. And this year we have all four quartets that are [those four]. What range of sounds can you evoke with a saxophone quartet?

Tremblay: That's a great question! It's really unlimited. There's so much you can do with that voicing. And the saxophone being an instrument that they say is very close to the human voice, it's very hard to reproduce that by a computer. It's really quite a dense sound, and because of the nature of the reed and the mouthpiece, and using your oral cavity, you can produce so many different colours and sounds with it. How does the sound of a saxophone quartet differ from the front line of a big band?

Tremblay: Sometimes there isn't much difference at all, for sure. I'd say you've got that extra component of having soprano on top, but … In a saxophone [big band] section, you'd have alto/alto/tenor/tenor/baritone, of course, but sometimes the alto player is written up pretty high.

But I know with my own saxophone quartet, when we play particular jazz pieces, it's very hard to tell the difference.

But depending on the writing, it can sometimes sound very different. How did you get students interested in playing with many saxophones together. What inspired them to do this?

Tremblay: It comes back from my experience studying at university. The saxophone quartet: I'd never been in one before, I didn't know what it was all about, and the things that I learned in that were amazingly helpful. I've taken these things forward all these years. I thought that, even if the students have never done it before, it's such an enriching experience. All the universities who have large saxophone departments, they ail have saxophone quartets in their program. What they learn out of that is just so valuable.

I really don't give them much of a choice in the beginning. [For most students] I just say, yep, you're taking saxophone here, well, we have sax quartet. What do they learn by playing four or more saxophones together?

Tremblay: First of all they're going to be super-exposed. They have to be able to play the full range of the instrument, [including] sometimes the extended range of the instrument, the altissimo register, at all dynamic levels. There is no rhythm section, so that the time is kept amongst the four of them and they all have to trust each other. They're going to be rehearsing a minimum of three hours a week on some usually quite difficult pieces which sometimes will require improvising, but which requires first of all practice on their own instrument to get the pieces together and perhaps learn to do new things just to get pieces together.

And then they have learn how to communicate that music through the four people, which is a really difficult thing to do. Tuning, intonation are so important. Time is so important. Dynamics are so important. Playing with the appropriate colour of sound so that you blend with the other instruments is so important. Those are types of things they're learning.

We're playing a lot of classical music. We're playing Samuel Barber's “Adagio for Strings”. We're playing some Mozart. They're having to learn the stylistic elements of the music at the same time, that they may not have been that exposed to before, especially if they were just a jazz player. So I'm getting a feeling that it actually forces players to be more exact in their playing?

Tremblay: Well, jazz has that element as well, depending on the type of jazz you're playing, but sometimes the freedom of improvisation allows you to hide in certain areas of the horn and avoid certain areas of the horn – whereas playing in a saxophone quartet, if you're a soprano player you better be used to playing right up to the top register because you're going to get that right away. What about the larger ensembles at Sunday's concert? Tell me about your choir with 13 saxophonists.

Tremblay: We always like to do combined pieces in a saxophone choir. Every concert we always have that component in it. It's nice for everybody to get together and really play and listen.

For this one, we've got two elements happening. We've got the 13-piece, which are just the Carleton students, performing “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Rebecca Cowal, a third-year music student, has taken that on. She's been conducting it. She has figured out who's going to play what parts where. She's taken the score and added some very special movement elements to it as well. So it's going to be the whole visual and audio experience of this tune. So she's worked out choreography for the students?

Tremblay: Exactly. It's going to be quite impressive. To see some of the students embrace that has been a real learning experience for me. I was on the fence – I didn't know if they would really buy in, but when we started out, we told them what was going to happen, and “OK, once you guys agree, that's it! We're doing it.”

And to make sure, we scheduled a performance a week ago for all the student body at the university. So everybody was forced to memorize a lot of music and learn the dance moves, and get it all together a couple weeks early – which has been great. And it was a great dry run. We made video of it, and we had a look at it on Friday and gave everybody something to think about and rehearse with a few new components and ideas to polish it up for the final performance on the 7th.

We've got some older students in there, like John Graham, and to see him in there and just nailing it, is amazing! How do you find pieces for the saxophone ensembles?

©Brett Delmage, 2019
©Brett Delmage, 2019

Tremblay: It's not easy. A lot of them I end up have to write myself. Sometimes I'll take Ennio Morricone's “Cinema Paradiso” and I'll arrange that for seven voices, and then I'll rewrite it again for saxophone choir. So we did that a few years ago.

There, surprisingly, are a few saxophone choirs that have toured, especially in Europe. There's one in England: it's quite amazing the stuff they've done. And that's where we got the idea from to do “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I purchased the arrangement from them. They had a full set of dance moves to it, and so we took their idea of putting dance to it, and Rebecca has choreographed the whole thing! What split do you make between classical and jazz pieces when you pick tunes for the ensembles?

Tremblay: It's always different. Every year there's a different ratio. Sometimes one particular quartet will end up with two or three classical pieces, and another quartet will end up with two or three jazz pieces. I try to mix it up as much as possible, but it depends on the skill level that's available and what the student played in the previous year.

I'm always try to augment my repertoire. I try to buy new pieces every fall and again in January, so everybody's having something that they haven't played before. Some of these students have been with me … one of the students who is graduating this year is Nick Letourneau. Nick was with me at Canterbury [High School], where we do sax quartet using my music, and then he's been with me for probably five years at Carleton. So if you're talking three or four pieces of music at the high level, per term, that's a lot of music! He's gone through a lot of my repertoire. So every year I try to make sure that guys like him are playing stuff they've never seen before.

It's worse with Nick Rivers-Moore. I think he started with me in Grade 8, and he went through I think every saxophone camp when he was in town and then he's been with me all through university. He took last semester off, but he came back this semester to play again! He missed it. He was really interested in coming back, so it was like, “Yes, the door's open”.

So trying to find music that he hasn't seen is a bit of a tough one. It's easier sometimes for me to write something new, or to purchase a new piece. How have the students reacted to playing these quite different arrangements for saxophones?

Tremblay: I think they really like it. There's a real sense of independence when they're there, as well as the whole getting along in a group. Because sometimes you're putting four people together with really different personalities, and it's just like being in a professional situation – you're having to get together and play this music every week. They often rehearse on their own as well, so there's a whole group dynamic that is really important to learn if you're going to be successful as a professional player. Are the Carleton students being graded on this?

Tremblay: They get an ensemble credit. The grading for the ensembles is not a specific mark, but they do get credit for it.

Rebecca Cowal ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Rebecca Cowal at the Carleton University Jazz Ensembles end-of-term concert.
©Brett Delmage, 2019 How did you involve the high school ensembles from Hillcrest and Canterbury?

Tremblay: It's mostly through just knowing the teachers in town, through doing masterclasses at their schools, through teaching their students privately. A lot of [the students] will do a saxophone quartet in the summer at one of our camps, and they'll go back in the fall, and they'll say, “Hey, can we get a saxophone quartet going?”. And of course the teacher's like “Yes, let's find some music and get it going.” And so once they start building up that on the high school level, getting them in to be part of a concert is a nice moment for them to go perform at a university alongside university students. They really get excited at that and it's nice to have them on campus. They get to hear and see a lot of the stuff that goes on [here].

We actually even have a co-op student with us this year. It's the first time we've ever formally done it. We have a great saxophone player: she's in Grade 11 at [École secondaire catholique] Béatrice-Desloges in Orleans. She's been with us all year. She comes in on Friday and rehearses [with] two quartets.

Hillcrest has been a big part of it. They were the first ones we invited in. Canterbury's been a part of it, and also in the fall, we always have [École secondaire publique] De La Salle. This is the first time the sax ensembles will perform in the 440-seat Kailash Mital Theatre at Carleton University, instead of in the music department's small studio.

Tremblay: We've always done it in A900 Loeb, in the Patrick Cardy Studio, but it's always standing room only, and we can't fit any more people in there. People are often standing in the wings, and they can't even sit down. So this year, we've been so thankful to Jesse Stewart for the work that he's done and he's managed to get us a date that works for everybody on the Sunday afternoon.

I'm really appreciative for all the support that we get every year [from the School for Studies in Art and Culture], right up to the director, Dr. Brian Foss. We have to, in some cases, rent instruments. We have expenses and the department has always been very supportive and all the staff of our ensembles. It's a really nice community feel.

And this ensemble, like the other ensembles, is a culmination of all the hard work that's going on there. Yes, it's going to be a saxophone concert, but it's one of the Carleton Music ensemble concerts, which are always great. I was just at the jazz one last week, and it was fabulous. It was so nice to see and hear the students.

The Carleton University Saxophone Ensembles Concert is in Kailash Mital Theatre, beside Southam Hall at the university, on Sunday, April 7, at 12 noon. Admission is $10 (free to Carleton music students and faculty). The university can be accessed from Bronson Avenue (at Sunnyside Avenue) or from Colonel By Drive. A campus map (look for “Southam Hall”; Kailash Mital Theatre adjoins it on the east side):

OC Transpo routes 7, 10, 104, 111, and light rail route 2 serve the university. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!

Covered bicycle parking is free and available across from Kailash Mital Theatre. Car parking lots are nearby; the university charges at all times for car parking.

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