“It was intense. It was a lot of fun, very gratifying.” That's how renowned guitarist Lorne Lofsky described the week he spent with six young musicians from across Canada, as they worked together to form this year's Humber National Youth Jazz Combo.
The combo performed before and after the awards ceremony at MusicFest Canada on May 17 in Ottawa, and received a standing ovation at the end of their hour-long concert.
They will be together again in Toronto at the end of June for the Toronto Jazz Festival. Humber College has offered the program to “Canada’s most outstanding young jazz musicians” since 2012, in order to “move their playing to a new level through rehearsal, performance and study”.
Canadian high school students apply through a rigorous on-line audition to take part in the combo, which is held in conjunction with the MusicFest Nationals. Five students were chosen this year: tenor saxophonist Steve Carson and trumpeter Lachlan Craven from Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island; alto saxophonist Tymish Koznarsky and drummer Matteo Mancuso from the Toronto area; and pianist Vincent Ribberink from the Ottawa area. Bassist Devon Savas, who is currently studying at Humber, completed the group.
They began with a two-hour rehearsal on Sunday, and then rehearsed about four hours every day until their Friday performance. Lofsky said this involved playing through repertoire, to get it more and more solidified.
“And in so doing get more proficient at their craft and learn what it's like to become a member of a team where everybody's pulling for everybody else and you all work together, where the desired result is just music played at a constantly developing higher level.”
After the concert, Ribberink spoke about his satisfying experience. “We've come a long way – some of those charts are pretty difficult and we've worked on them and they've gotten really good! I'm happy to play them on the stage today. It was great.”
Lofsky said he brought a varied mix of tunes to play with the combo, “what someone would want to play in a concert. You don't want to play all the same kind of tune, all the same key, all the same tempo, all the same style – right? After two tunes, you go, 'When are they going to play something else?' ”
Of the 12 or 13 pieces he brought in, the combo ended up performing eight on Friday.
“I brought in a waltz (like a 3/4 song). I rewrote a jazz standard that's normally played with a jazz feel. I rewrote it to be played with a bossa nova feel in an odd meter, which presents different challenges. And then we had a couple of what I call barn-burners, like fast straight-ahead jazz tunes [and] a nice ballad.”
The tunes were primarily modern jazz: “Stablemates” by Benny Golson [the bossa]; “One Finger Snap”, a fast swing tune by Herbie Hancock; the Henry Mancini ballad “Dreamsville”. They also included several contrafacts, which put an alternate melody line on the chords of a standard: “Subconscious-lee” by Lee Konitz [“What Is This Thing Called Love?”]; and “On Again, Off Again” by Jerry Bergonzi [“Solar”].
Each of the tunes “presented different challenges for different reasons”, and he had the combo play through all of them.
“So we were reading through the tunes and trying to learn how to improvise on them, and more importantly, trying to play them together as a band, not just a bunch of six individuals just reading through charts and not really listening to one another. After a while, the tunes found a life of their own, and they could sometimes look away from the music and listen more to each other. Because the most important thing when you play jazz, or any type of music really, is listening to one another and communicating. And they started to really get that happening, with very challenging material.”
By Friday's concert, the audience could see that the students were clearly familiar enough with the material that they were looking at each other, rather than the charts, while playing.
Ribberink said he particularly enjoyed playing the combo's opening tune, “Starlight” by Toronto saxophonist Kirk MacDonald, in which he had an extended piano solo.
“It's like a contrafact on “Stella by Starlight” in a different key. It's amazing – it's great three-part harmony and it's just a great form, and soloing over it is so much fun.”
This combo had not performed together before. The Toronto-area students, however, had all gone through Humber's Community Music Program, where Lofsky is director of Advanced Jazz Studies, and teaches upper echelon and more experienced high school students. This was the first time Lofsky had directed the National Youth Jazz Combo, which is normally run by MacDonald.
Ribberink said that Lofsky was “really focused on listening and interacting with people, which is good. I like the way he directs – it's laid-back but not laid-back in a way that you start to get careless. Like It's laid-back but you still work hard, and I learned a lot from him.”
“Also just listening to him play. Sometimes that's all it is – just listening to them play.”
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