They had been playing in their high school jazz bands since September, and had been invited to compete nationally. But when these talented students from across Canada joined this year's Conn-Selmer Centerstage Jazz Band, they had no time to rest on their laurels.
“We've been doing hard, long practices, 6 hours each day,” said Ottawa trumpeter Matt Roberts, shortly before the band's concert last Friday at MusicFest Nationals in Ottawa. This was his third and final year in the band, and he was featured in several of the band's numbers.
The 18 students in this national honour band were chosen through a rigorous on-line audition. They included five members of Ottawa's Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB): Matt Roberts, saxophonists Noah Carisse and Patrick Vafaie, bass trombonist Ben Glauser, and drummer Sam Alexander. There were no women in the band.
Playing in the band gave the students a comprehensive introduction to classic big band jazz, from the 1930s to the 2000s, selected by band director and University of Toronto jazz studies professor Gordon Foote. Their work culminated in a full-scale, hour-long concert before a packed house on the last day of MusicFest Canada's national conference, with guest artist trombonist Kelsley Grant.
They opened their concert with a vibrant Count Basie number, continued with a swinging Duke Ellington piece from 1932, and jumped to a multi-layered piece by Michael Brecker from the 1990s. An inviting Benny Carter piece challenged the students with a strolling tempo, while on the Stan Kenton number “Decoupage”, the band added an extra trumpeter to create its swelling orchestral sound.
Grant joined the orchestra for the final four pieces in the show, adding rounded and nicely modulated solos to pieces made famous by Count Basie and Stan Kenton, and a ballad by Johnny Mandel.
The show closed with Dizzy Gillespie's “A Night in Tunisia”, arranged as a trombone fantasia with inventive solos from Grant and the trombone section over the strongly swinging full band. The audience jumped to its feet for a huge standing ovation.
This year and in 2018, the band was directed by saxophonist Gordon Foote. Foote has decades of experience directing award-winning university student big bands. He previously directed the McGill Jazz Orchestra I [read our review of the orchestra at the 2019 MusicFest], and currently directs the University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra.
Just before the final number at the concert, Foote told the audience, “It has been an incredible week. We've worked since Sunday night and worked every days for long, long hours. Imagine, to put a band together to this level in basically four days of rehearsal. It's quite a feat.” He turned to the band: “It has been a real honour and privilege and pleasure to work with you this week. Thank you so much for your hard work and effort.”
OttawaJazzScene.ca interviewed Foote after the concert about the band, the challenges involved in bringing these students together, and how he picked its repertoire.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How long have you been directing the Conn-Selmer Centerstage Jazz Band?
Gordon Foote: This is just my second year with it. They rotate. They get different people all the time, so I did it last year in Toronto because it was at U of T, and then this is the second year.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you generally have 18 students in the band?
Foote: That's about normal. It depends – sometimes we've used five trumpets, five trombones; sometimes we've used four and four, [plus] five saxes, bass, piano, drums, guitar.
So it's usually between 17 and 19 – and then a soloist. We had Kelsley Grant as the guest, but he's not part of the section as much as just a soloist.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: This was obviously all jazz in the tradition. Why did you pick that particular repertoire?
Foote: Well, there are several considerations of course. One of them is difficulty. You know that you've got basically four days to put the thing together, so you can't pick stuff that's super, super, super-difficult or you'll never get it together. And you don't want stuff that's too watered-down because then it's not really a challenge.
So I usually bring a suitcase full of music, and go through it. We read probably twice as many tunes as we actually performed. I wanted to get them experience with Kenton, and Ellington, and Basie, and Woody, and Thad Jones. I wanted to get them experience with that, because many of them don't get that opportunity in their own bands. And I wanted to get them a bunch of different styles and time signatures and all kinds of stuff, so they had that experience with it.
Plus it's repertoire from 1932 all the way up to 2000, 2010. So there's a different sound, there's a different kind of arranging, a different type of playing, a different vibrato, a different style. So I give them that as well: tips on how to play Ellington versus Basie type of thing.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: It was interesting that a jazz orchestra in Ottawa just did a tribute to Benny Carter a few weeks ago. It was great to hear the band do another piece by Benny Carter because he isn't as often included.
Foote: My research over the years has always been on Basie and so I really gravitate towards that. And so when that suite came out, I wanted to do some of it. It's really gorgeous music! And it's challenging.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How long did the ensemble practice each day?
Foote: We would start at 9 in the morning. Taking breaks, we'd usually go from 9 till about noon and then we'd go from about 1:30 until 4. But, you see, some of the times we didn't have full rehearsals because these people are all here with their bands, and so they would leave rehearsals [for performances].
And sometimes we'd have to cancel the afternoon because we'd have six or seven people missing because they were doing their [school band adjudicated] performances. And that's part of the festival, and that's why they're here. So that's what you have to do, is you have to go, 'OK, well, we can't really rehearse with seven people missing', so we wouldn't.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What are the challenges with bringing together a band like this?
Foote: These people, some of them, they've never met! So they've never played together, they don't know any of the material usually. So it's a challenge of learning material, sight-reading, learning the solos, learning to play in a section, learning to play the music, learning to play as a band. The piano player was telling me that this was the first time he's ever played piano in a big band.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: And that's a totally different thing!
Foote: Exactly. So that was really kind of cool. The other part is that they're just from all across the country and you put these people from all of these programs and it's fantastic! Because they get a chance to meet each other and work with each other, for the first time. It was kind of cool.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: And then they may meet again in university or in other groups...
Foote: They will all meet. This is their network and it's going to continue like that forever. It's going to be like that. This is just the beginning of their network.
- Ya Gotta Try [Sammy Nestico for Count Basie]
- Harlem Air Shaft [Duke Ellington]
- African Skies [Michael Brecker]
- A Walkin' Thing [Benny Carter]
- Decoupage [Hank Levy for Stan Kenton]
- A Warm Breeze [Sammy Nestico for Count Basie]
- A Little Minor Booze [Willie Maiden for Stan Kenton]
- A Time for Love [Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster]
- A Night in Tunisia [Dizzy Gillespie]
2019 Conn-Selmer Centrestage Jazz Band
- Saxophones: James Griffith (alto), Noah Carisse (alto), Adam Lamoureux (tenor), Ethan Zambarylo (tenor), Patrick Vafaie (baritone)
- Trumpets: Matt Roberts, Ilhan Saferali, Owen Catania, Nikolaj Hansen (plus Kian Wong)
- Trombones: Mateo Jaeckel, Nick Forget, Mico Valmonte, Ben Glauser (bass)
- Guitar: Nathan Spivey
- Piano: Nathan Zeweniuk
- Bass: Ben Boardman
- Drums: Sam Alexander, Jackson Haynes
Read related stories on OttawaJazzScene.ca:
- Hear 96 jazz bands from PEI to Vancouver Island at MusicFest 2019 in Ottawa
- 2019 MusicFest Canada Nationals celebrated, recognized young Canadian jazz musicians
- McGill Jazz Orchestra I sets a high bar for big band at MusicFest
- “Canada’s most outstanding young jazz musicians” and Lorne Lofsky create a concert
- Nanaimo's jazz lineage inspires student musicians