Decades after he started, Toronto jazz musician and composer Shirantha Beddage is still exploring and being challenged by the baritone sax.

Shirantha Beddage ©Brett Delmage, 2017
Baritone saxophonist Shirantha Beddage returns to Ottawa on April 30. He was last here in 2017 with his quartet performing at JUNOfest. ©Brett Delmage, 2017

“The baritone has been my weapon of choice for the better part of the last 22, 23 years. I think for me any instrument has that potential – but I feel more drawn to the baritone and I have for a number of years. I think that it's always going to allow the challenge to learn and grow.”

What appeals to him about it, he says, is “it has a vocal quality that is similar enough to my vocal range that I feel like I try to get a singing sound out of the instrument. And that is something I've identified with.”

Ottawa audiences have heard Beddage on baritone both with his own quartet and backing musicians like pianist Nancy Walker. He's also showcased the baritone in his three albums, the latest two of which were nominated for JUNO jazz awards, and he performs with it in ensembles ranging from trios to big bands. He plays other saxophones, clarinet, and flute as well, both in big bands, and on his latest album, Momentum.

The baritone sax is at the low end of a standard horn section; while there are deeper-pitched saxophones such as the bass and contrabass, they're infrequently played. But players don't have to stick to its low notes; its range also overlaps to a great extent that of the tenor saxophone.

Beddage has experimented with extending its upper register – a natural move given he started on first piano and then tenor sax before moving to baritone, and was inspired by listening to many of the great tenor players.

“Even as a high school student, I remember experimenting with some of those extreme upper register sounds, and later trying to learn how to control those things and make it a more natural part of my improvisational and even compositional voice. A lot of the songs that I've written, especially more recently, have forced me to stay up there and try to understand how I could make melodies and even compose melodies for myself that sit in that extreme upper register of the instrument – just so I could learn how to better control that end of the instrument's range.”

He came to the baritone almost by accident. “I was asked to play the baritone sax by my high school teacher. I joke that I was asked to play it because I met the height requirement! I think they just needed someone to fill that particular instrument in the ensemble. My teacher knew that I played tenor and they needed a baritone player, and that was that.”

“To be honest, I'm not sure why I was drawn to that instrument at first. I suppose it was just because the opportunity was presented and I liked the sound of it.”

In fact, he was first drawn in to jazz through tenor saxophonists playing jazz fusion: “bands like the Yellowjackets and the Brecker Brothers and bands that were integrating jazz and rock and other things in the 90s. Those were contemporary bands of the time that drew me in – and none of that music featured baritone! It was all tenor players. So I think when I started playing baritone I probably sounded more like a tenor player trying to play baritone.”

This gradually changed as he studied with saxophonists Pat LaBarbera at Humber College and then Gary Smulyan at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Smulyan “really caused me to look back and start researching the history of the instrument. That was really only in my early 20s when I started digging in and trying to understand the styles of Serge Chaloff, and Harry Carney and Leo Parker and so many of those other players that had come before that I really hadn't dug into at first. It was an odd kind of journey, but I feel like I've come full circle now, and started to fully grasp the history of the instrument – the rich history of the instrument.”

Beddage has a a Master of Music degree in Jazz Studies from William Paterson, and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Jazz Studies from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He now is a full-time faculty member and Head of Theory in the music department at Humber College in Toronto. He's also a well-known musician in Toronto's jazz scene, with his own quartet and playing in other ensembles and big bands.

His most recent CD, Momentum [2016], was a complicated effort with him overdubbing himself playing other woodwinds on top of the original quartet recording with him on baritone. It ended up being a “very involved” process which offered some interesting challenges, he said.

“I really wanted to try some studio effects and layering and overdubbing. I composed some of the pieces on that album to feature some of those instruments at a later point. Of course, in the studio it was basically a quartet recording, but with the intent of me going back and overdubbing those parts. I actually composed the pieces and sent the musicians sequenced tracks with all the woodwind parts included as a bit of a mock-up – just to give them an idea as to what was my full intent for the song.”

He's starting to write pieces for its successor now, but in a quite different vein.

“The next project that I'm currently working on is something that is likely to be much more stripped-down and kind of raw than my last recording. I have a few different ideas, but I'm thinking of a trio project at the moment, and working on some material that's a little bit more open-ended and less structured.”

His concept is just sax and rhythm section: “something that is a little bit looser”, and recorded live off the floor. “I enjoy the freedom of that and there are a number of musicians in Toronto that I feel like would be a really excellent fit in order to develop this idea. So that's my current line of thought.”

In the next few months, he'll also be writing for a much larger ensemble: a big band recording featuring the well-known Korean folksinger Jang Sa-ik. Jang has worked with a number of Toronto jazz musicians in the past, Beddage said, and “has a real connection to this musical community.”

The album will contain big band arrangements of Jang's original music and music that he has recorded in the past with small groups. Three well-known Toronto jazz musicians, Beddage, pianist Brian Dickinson, and trumpeter and big band leader John MacLeod, are arranging Jang's music specifically for this album, which will be recorded in early summer.

“It's a very interesting project, and trying to get inside the emotional content of the music and respect it as well as bringing my own personality to it is a really interesting challenge.”

Beddage said that he continues to look for opportunities to learn and grow, both with the baritone and in “my musical journey in general.”

“I think the pursuit of that next level of mastery is always going to be something that drives me no matter what instrument I'm playing, no matter what I'm composing or arranging, or for that matter what I'm listening to or trying to understand from other great musicians.”

The Nepean All-City Jazz Band and the Nepean All-City Lab Band, with special guest Shirantha Beddage, will perform their spring concert on Tuesday, April 30, 2019, at 7:30 p.m., at Nepean High School. Tickets ($15 for adults, and $10 for students and seniors) are available at the door. The school is located at 574 Broadview Avenue, between Byron and Dovercourt, in Ottawa's near-west end. OC Transpo routes 16 and 50 stop nearby. Route 85 stops on Carling Avenue, 5 blocks south of the school, Route 11 stops a few blocks north of the school, or you can get off at the Dominion Transitway stop and walk south and west for about 17 minutes. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!

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