On the cover of Mark Ferguson and Mike Tremblay's new quartet CD is a close-up painting of a horse.
A very happy horse, in fact, looking like he's just crunched down on a big juicy apple. It fits the vibe of a CD of primarily upbeat swinging tunes, performed by the two Ottawa jazz champions, with renowned Toronto jazz musicians Dave Young and Terry Clarke.
They'll debut the album this Tuesday in a CD release concert at the Unitarian church in Ottawa, and then again on the main stage of the Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 26.
Tremblay’s wife owns a horse, and he wrote the title tune, “Appleface”, inspired by the face the horse makes when he feeds it an apple. He showed a cellphone photo of that face to Ferguson – “just a big, sloppy kind of chewing face,” Ferguson said. “And coincidently my wife, Monica, had done a painting of a horse. A real closeup, almost like a fish[eye] lens closeup of a horse. And I showed it to him and he said, 'Yes, that’s the apple face!' ”
“Sure enough, it was almost the same picture. The same angle of the horse and everything, it was there,” Tremblay said. “I said, 'There's the CD cover!' Because it just connected everything.”
Appleface is the second CD Tremblay and Ferguson have released together, and comes a decade after their successful first release, Home.
"We decide to go with our A-list"
In December, 2017, Tremblay said, the two went out for a beverage after a gig and thought about what they wanted to do next. “And it was like, yes, we've got to do another one. Are we going to do another duo or are we going to do something else? And we decided to go with our A-list! Which was Terry and Dave. And both were totally available and into it, and so we went from there.”
Dave Young is a master double bassist, a JUNO winner and nine-time JUNO nominee, who leads his own jazz groups, and plays classical music [read our review of his duo performance at the 2017 Chamberfest]. He notably played in guitarist Lenny Breau's quartet for five years, and for three decades in the Oscar Peterson Trio in appearances all over the world. He was most recently in Ottawa in April with his trio.
For four consecutive years (2002-2005), Terry Clarke was honoured as "Drummer of the Year" at the National Jazz Awards. He won a JUNO in 2010 for best traditional jazz album. Ottawa audiences have heard him several times: playing with Young, for example in an Oscar Peterson tribute; in a trio with the late pianist Brian Browne; and on the soundtrack of the film Born to be Blue.
Ferguson said that, when he lived in Toronto in the 1980s, he played with Clarke several times, in The Boss Brass, and in Ian McDougall's trombone ensemble, The Brass Connection. Tremblay said he met Young while playing with the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra, and also included him as an instructor at the 2014 Carleton University Jazz Camp.
Young and Clarke were great collaborators, Ferguson said.
“Listening to the album I marvel sometimes how Terry will ... it’s almost like he has a sixth sense. He’s hearing what a soloist is doing, and really doing something complementary. And Dave’s the same way. Dave’s sense of swing is just amazing, and it makes you sound better. He’s easy to play with and they’re both so supportive, they make you sound better.”
“For me, it was just really cool to hear my tunes come alive, with all these different perspectives that I had no real idea were there when I wrote these tunes,” Tremblay said. “To hear what they brought to the tunes, it was just a whole new thing.”
Musically, Young and Clarke “answer everything you say and they just give you new ideas. And the groove is so good, the time feels so good, so it's a pleasure to play with them.”
"Two hours to learn all this original material"
Last September, the four played two consecutive (Friday and Saturday) sold-out concerts at GigSpace. It was the first time they'd played together as a quartet. Young and Clarke arrived from Toronto about 3 p.m. on the Friday, and had their initial look at the music at the rehearsal.
“They were sight-reading, on that first two-night concert. But, at their level, it's not a big deal for them. And just so inventive, what they bring to it,” Tremblay said.
“We laid all this material, like 10 original tunes on them,” Ferguson remembers. “We probably rehearsed from 4 to 6. So they had two hours to learn all this original material. A lot of it’s not easy. There’s time changes and things. And they really nailed it. It's obvious that they’re such professionals, right? They’re used to coming in and be able to read somebody else’s music and do a great job on it.”
It was an intense experience, but “fortunately we had two nights so we got to play the tunes more than once. That set the stage for the way everything was going to work out. And then when we got together in the studio things did evolve a little bit, and we made a few changes. But it was basically tunes as we wrote them and interpreted by the whole quartet.”
“It established the fact that it was going to work, and that we were all kindred spirits.”
Playing the music live allowed the musicians to get comfortable with it, Tremblay said.
“I wanted to try to get to the stage personally where I wasn't really thinking about the tunes, getting to the point musically where I was able to just hear things and not think so much while I'm playing. Because there's some pretty complicated harmonic and time things going on with a bunch of the tunes, and it's takes a long time to be able to play that stuff, and get past the difficulties, so that you're just reacting and listening and reacting and listening and reacting.”
In November, Ferguson and Tremblay played another show with just Young at Nepean High School. Then the full quartet recorded the album at Canterbury Studios in Toronto on December 21 and 22 – following that with a Saturday late set at the Rex, one of Toronto's premier jazz clubs.
“It was a pretty full house and everybody seemed to dig the tunes,” Tremblay said.
"A common musical background and the same kind of sensibilities"
Ferguson and Tremblay have been friends for three decades, performing together ever since Ferguson returned from Toronto. They've played with ensembles ranging from the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra to their own jazz groups, with Tremblay on woodwinds and flute, and Ferguson on trombone and piano.
Ferguson co-leads the Latin big band Los Gringos, plays in Manteca, and is a notable arranger and producer for many vocalists, while Tremblay plays in saxophone ensembles and regularly performs in the bands for touring and local musical theatre productions. Both teach privately and at Carleton University, and Tremblay is co-founder and director of the annual Carleton University Jazz Camp.
Tremblay has “a great sound”, Ferguson said. “We’ve worked together in so many different situations from Aretha Franklin to wedding bands. We have a really common musical background and the same kind of sensibilities.”
“Neither of us really like to showboat or overplay. I always feel like less is more is a good motto. And we just really work well together, I think.”
Tremblay said they “definitely find it a lot of fun to communicate together. Musically it just seems to be very easy to play with him. He's got great time. He's just an incredible, all-around musician. He's got the writing aspect, he's got the arranging, the piano, the trombone.”
Capturing a bit of Brian Browne in a song
All the tunes on Appleface are originals by Ferguson and Tremblay – unlike Home, which includes several standards. Ferguson included one tune from his 2015 album, The Next Chapter, but on the new album, “Effsharp” is played “in a different context” with the melody on soprano sax instead of vibraphone. Tremblay's sax is “a really nice colour for that tune”, Ferguson said.
Also included is a tribute to the late master jazz pianist Brian Browne. Ferguson said he wrote “A Song for Brian Browne” on the day Browne died, in June 2018.
“His death wasn’t unexpected at that point but it was a very sad day. It’s not a morose song - I tried to capture a little bit of Brian. His wife Carol Banens will be there on Tuesday, and we’ll make a presentation of the Brian Browne memorial scholarship to a deserving young pianist to attend the Carleton Jazz Camp in August.”
“Brian was the real thing - a true jazz musician. I loved listening to his spontaneous arrangements of familiar tunes. We’ll really miss him at Jazz Camp this year. He had a real loving relationship with the young musicians that he mentored.”
Tremblay said they were looking for variety in the tunes. “I find it easiest to write bebop tunes, and so how can I take a bebop tune, and make it interesting and have a bit of a hook or something different in it that makes it exciting to play? Sometimes it's an odd meter, or sometimes it's an unexpected set of chord changes in the middle, taking you somewhere else. But something, to give it a bit of a hook.”
He said he worked on his tunes almost every day for several months.
“I write a little bit, and then erase a lot, and then write a little bit, and erase a lot. It takes me a while to write a tune, and I feel that, when I'm done, it's been a few weeks of writing, and what stayed seems to be OK. I'm just so used to improvising, where it comes much easier. But writing a tune, writing a melody, writing a set of chord changes, that takes a lot of care, for sure.”
Two opportunities to hear the quartet
On Tuesday, Young and Clarke will return to Ottawa for the album release concert. The quartet will play the entire album, in two 45-minute sets.
Ferguson and Tremblay picked the Unitarian church for that show because they love the Steinway piano there, Tremblay said. At about 300 seats, it's a much larger venue than GigSpace, and “a lot of my students were not able to come to the GigSpace concerts because they sold out in a matter of days.” It's also the same location as their release concert for Home, and almost ten years (June 11, 2019 versus June 24, 2009) after that concert.
Ticket sales have been going well, with more than 120 reservations by last Friday, “so I imagine we're going to be close to being full.”
Copies of the CD will be available for sale at Tuesday's concert, Tremblay said, and digital downloads will be available on both his and Ferguson's websites. “And if they really want an actual CD, I'm perfectly happy to mail them one.”
On June 26, the quartet will perform together again on the outdoor main stage of the Ottawa Jazz Festival, opening for the Brad Mehldau Quintet.
“The Jazz Festival set will be one hour straight, so we may have to leave out some of the material for the festival concert. And it will be cool for me because I’ll be playing the same piano as Brad Mehldau, which is daunting but kind of exciting,” Ferguson said.
Get there! The concert is at the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa, 30 Cleary Avenue. The church is just off Richmond Road, east of Woodroffe Avenue and west of Broadview Avenue. The church has directions and a map. OC Transpo route 11 stops on Richmond Road close to the church, route 16 stops at Dovercourt and Sherbourne about 10 minutes walk away, and route 87 stops at Woodroffe and Richmond, about 12 minutes walk away. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!
Read a selection of OttawaJazzScene.ca's other articles about Mike Tremblay and Mark Ferguson:
- The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra focuses on strings in a rich and vivid concert (Mike Tremblay) 
- A sweep of strings as OJO reimagines classic jazz albums (MIke Tremblay) 
- The siren sound of saxophone on Sunday (Mike Tremblay) 
- Mike Tremblay,Tim Bedner,Ben Heard to record without a net at Friday concert 
- The Mike Tremblay Trio Live at GigSpace - as it happened (video) 
- Renamed Carleton U Jazz Camp Award recognizes founder Mike Tremblay 
- Inside the Scene: how Alan Whatmough made GigSpace's 2-piano concert happen (Mark Ferguson) 
- Mark Ferguson's Next Chapter unfolds beyond jazz 
- A musical preview of Renée Yoxon's and Mark Ferguson's new CD 
- Los Gringos has a rousing reunion (Mark Ferguson)