Shirantha Beddage ©Brett Delmage, 2017
Baritone saxophonist Shirantha Beddage, seen here at JUNOfest in Ottawa, is the 2019 special guest of the Nepean All-City Jazz Band and the Nepean All-City Lab Band on Tuesday, April 30. ©Brett Delmage, 2017

For Shirantha Beddage, playing in a jazz big band is “a really magical thing”.

“I just love big band music in general. I think writing for a large ensemble gives you the opportunity to work with so many different colours and textures, and experiment with orchestration that of course you can't do the same way in a small group.”

Beddage will be passing on this love of big band music to Ottawa students and to big band jazz fans this month. He's the 2019 guest artist with the award-winning Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB) and Nepean All-City Lab Band (NACLB), each 18 members strong.

He will perform with both bands in a large-scale public concert at Nepean High School on International Jazz Day on April 30 – his first appearance in Ottawa in two years. The concert will include some of his compositions and several of his arrangements for big band, and other modern and classic big band compositions.

The Toronto baritone saxophonist has twice been nominated for a JUNO Award – both times for small-ensemble jazz recordings of his own compositions. But he also directs a student big band at Humber College, and plays in professional big bands.

“I grew up listening to a lot of the great Canadian big bands. Like so many other people, I loved the Boss Brass growing up, and later Phil Nimmons and his large ensembles, and Hugh Fraser. I just have a real passion for that. Kenny Wheeler as well of course.”

“There's a real magic to have 17 or 18 or 19 musicians get together and play as one with the same approach to time and rhythm and intensity. I think it's a balancing act between leadership and sacrifice. Every one of the musicians in that ensemble is amazing, but they all have to come together with that shared vision. And in any great big band you always hear that. You hear the raw intensity of it, but you hear that control and a deference to the group sound as opposed to an individual sound.”

In May, he'll become the regular baritone player in the JUNO-winning Rex Hotel Orchestra, led by trumpeter John MacLeod – whom he sees as carrying on “the rich tradition of big bands in Canada.”

“I'm really looking forward to that new chapter. I've subbed into that band many times over the years and I'm really looking forward to being a member of that ensemble. It's inspired me a great deal. John is, I think, one of the finest big band writers out there, and a wonderful musician. He's also a colleague of mine at Humber and really so many of the members of that ensemble are people that I have worked with so many times over the years, both as musicians and as colleagues and as educators too.”

Beddage will bring this professional experience to Ottawa next week – as well as more direct experience with student bands. He's a full-time faculty member in the Music Department at Humber College, where he directs its “B” band, and also frequently guests with youth jazz bands such as the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band in Toronto. He's also a regular adjudicator in the yearly student MusicFest Canada competitions, where he's met the NACJB and NACLB directors as well as three or four of the students in the bands this year.

He'll approach the bands “in a very similar way than if I were a guest with a professional group. I try to keep an open mind and assess where they are as students. I don't try to compromise any of my own musicality in essence. I try to just be true to myself as an artist whenever I'm playing.”

“I want to be able to speak to them as adults, as musicians who love what they do. It doesn't necessarily matter to me for this concert whether they have an intent to go on to become professional musicians. I just want to help them learn and enjoy the music as best as they can, and develop a love for it, and if I can contribute to that in any way I'm happy to do that.”