“Follow the yellow brick road.” “We're off to see the wizard.” “Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh, my!” “Somewhere over the rainbow.”

Instantly recognizable, right? The Wizard of Oz is a part of everyday culture, both as a book and as a movie. But, although many jazz vocalists have performed the movie's songs, the music hasn't often been the inspiration for instrumental jazz compositions.

Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart, and Toronto baritone saxophonist David Mott will play together again in Journey to the Land of Oz. ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart, and Toronto baritone saxophonist David Mott will play together again in Journey to the Land of Oz. ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Which makes Toronto saxophonist David Mott's new project, Journey to the Land of Oz, particularly interesting. He will premiere it on Saturday at 6 p.m. on the main stage of the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Mott is using the music from the Wizard of Oz movie as a starting point for his composition: “What I did was I took some of the Harold Arlen existing 'Oz' music and incorporated it into some things that I was doing – and bended and twisted it. So I think people will recognize the Harold Arlen music sometimes when it appears and probably not other times, but it's all intermingled into a kind of a journey, if I could call it that, a musical journey.”

As a child, Mott read the Oz books and saw the movie. And even though the book was originally published in 1900 and the movie appeared in 1939, he said they speak to modern-day concerns too.

“The Oz books originally really were coded about the economic situation that was current at the time, which seems to be an important connection because of what's happening in the world now economically.”

Then the Hollywood version turned it into “a nice fable and that's what we all know [it] as – a fable of sorts, fully realizing the humanity of whether it's getting a heart, or your courage, or a brain”, he said. And that combination he found “just intuitively compelling, so I decided to use it.”

On the movie soundtrack, you hear vocalists backed by a full symphony orchestra. That won't be the instrumentation you hear in Confederation Park: instead Mott on baritone sax will be playing with Peter Lutek on saxophones, Ellwood Epps on trumpet, John Geggie on bass, and Jesse Stewart on drums.

Mott said the switch wasn't hard at all: he just recontextualized and reorchestrated the music: “harmonically, rhythmically, metrically, all those kinds of things. … But you have to understand you're not going to get the big Hollywood string version. It's going to be what we do.”

“Don't forget, of course, that all of the three wind instruments are capable of sustains, very much as a string orchestra would be. So there are places where there will be those kinds of sustains. But you won't have that same kind of lush sound, so the music becomes recontextualized in a lot of different ways.”

Mott started work on the project last fall, among the other compositional work he does for himself and other musicians. “People have had their parts, and so actually we're driving in [Thursday] to Ottawa for a four-hour rehearsal. We have another four-hour rehearsal [Friday], so it will be about eight hours of rehearsal time, but everybody has time individually on their parts, so it's such a great group of musicians that that's not going to be an issue. Everybody just is like “so this is how this works!” ”

A long-standing quintet

The group is “hardly a pick-up band”; he estimated the quintet had been playing together for at least a decade and had known each other for longer than that. “And it's nice – we get to do these projects every so often when they present themselves. It's hard because Ellwood lives in Montreal, Peter and I live in Toronto, and of course Jesse and John live in Ottawa, so we always come to Ottawa to rehearse anyway, so it's a nice thing to have the gig here.”

Each musician has strong credentials in both the jazz and avant-garde jazz realms, and particularly as improvisers. Mott said the piece would include sections of group improvisation as well as composed sections.

Mott's own instrument, the baritone sax, will add “the bottom voice in terms of the wind instruments, although the bass arguably and even the bass drum occupy that position in other ways. And there are times, too where John [Geggie] and I will be playing together to give it a real, tough bottom end. I like that sound where the bass and the baritone are doing things together, allowing the tenor saxophone and the trumpet to do what they do above.

The richness and depth of the baritone sax's sound

“The baritone saxophone in jazz in general, has occupied from the wind standpoint the bottom of whatever group of instruments that there are. I mean, I'm capable of playing up high, and I will be doing quite a lot of that, too, but there's something … as you say, the richness of the sound and the depth of the sound is what helps drive the sound of the upper instruments, because you'll hear them in some cases as being upper overtones of what's happening at the bottom.”

Mott plays baritone both in groups and as a solo instrument, and listening to him talk, you can hear how how much he is attuned to it, how well it fits him.

“The thing about [the baritone] is that its fundamental pitch is quite low, but I'm able to play quite high on the instrument using overtones and things like that, so it has a vast potential for doing unusual things, whereas the higher instruments – for me – because their lowest note is much higher, they don't really have that capability. And I love its physicality: it's a big instrument, it's very physical to play, and I just enjoy that.

“The other thing that you should know, which you probably recognize by listening to my voice, is that that's my vocal range. So I relate very well to that.”

Has playing the baritone given him more freedom or been more difficult?

“I think it's a bit of both. I mean, it's a whole lot of plumbing, so people look at it and say “What's THAT?” Everybody knows what a saxophone is, but they look at how the top of the instrument is twisted around, and all kinds of things, and if they're not familiar with the instrument, it is a bit of unfamiliarity. And that's a neat thing, too. I rather like that aspect that people don't quite know what to expect necessarily, whereas if it were a tenor saxophone or an alto saxophone, they have some preconceptions.

“But they might not have those preconceptions about the baritone. By the way, I think that's changing. I think there are more and more people being drawn to the baritone. Originally, people went to the baritone as a secondary instrument; they would play the other saxophones and if somebody needed them to they would play the baritone saxophone. But a lot of that changed I think starting for example with Harry Carney in the Duke Ellington band and Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff. And then there were quite a few people in the bebop tradition – I mean Pepper Adams and Nick Brignola and Ronnie Cuber who made that their instrument and didn't play anything else, really.”

"It's a big instrument, it's very physical to play, and I just enjoy that."

Mott said there were still probably few other baritone saxophonists who regularly played solo concerts. “I think I'm probably one of a very few who do do that. But there certainly are other baritone players, and there are a number of good ones in Canada. I'm thinking of Charles Papasoff in Montreal, and Jean Derome plays it very, very well.”

They even play together. Several years ago, Mott said, Papasoff put together a group of six baritones, including well-known American jazz musician Hamiet Bluiett. “There were two from Europe and three of us from Canada, called the International Baritone Conspiracy, and we played FIMAV – Victoriaville, the Musique Actuelle Festival. We were the opening thing, and we got a standing ovation. People had never heard six baritone players together. And so it was a lot of fun and we were a big hit, and actually Victo put out a CD of the live performance. So it can be done!”

Mott has played the bass saxophone – once. “I was in Edmonton, and a saxophonist that knew me brought his in and said, “Here – have a try at it!” And I didn't like it. I don't know why. I have also played a hybrid contrabass saxophone called the tubax which bends around like a tuba. And it's made in Germany: very expensive. I met a French saxophonist who plays the tubax and I gave it a try, and I didn't much care for that one, either.

“I guess it really has a lot to do with my vocal range. I really feel the baritone.”

Mott has a widely varied series of projects coming up, including a duo concert with bassist Rob Clutton at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival next week, and his Aerosonic project with concert accordionist Joseph Petric. He's also currently working on a double concerto for Petric and himself: baritone saxophone and accordion, plus strings.

    – Alayne McGregor