Brian Sanderson tips his hat to the assembled crowd at the Montreal Jazz Festival  ©Alayne McGregor 2012
Brian Sanderson tips his hat to the assembled crowd at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Alayne McGregor 2012

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First you heard the drums, then the horns. As Mike Essoudry's Mash Potato Mashers burst out upon the crowd on rue Sainte-Catherine in Montréal on the afternoon of July 1, they attracted immediate attention. A quickly-growing circle of listeners, most of whom settled in to listen for the entire hour, regularly clapped and cheered despite the oppressive heat.

Outdoor concerts are a major part of the Festival Internationale de Jazz de Montréal.  The 11-day festival's stages and audiences take over several major streets that surround the large, downtown performance facility, Place des Arts. The Mash Potato Mashers were one of several marching bands which animated festival afternoons in 2012 (sometimes even playing against each other).

July 1 was the last day of the Mashers' four-day stopover in Montreal, where the band had played seven outdoor afternoon concerts.

But it was only the middle of a literally cross-Canada tour (from B.C. to Newfoundland), a major step forward in the Mashers' two-year career.

Essoudry debuted the Mashers in early 2010, a nine-piece marching band composed of jazz musicians like himself from the Ottawa area. But their material is much more diverse: a mash-up of jazz and “Balkan and klezmer and New Orleans and some Brazilian stuff as well. Lots and lots of different things. Gospel, funk, and everything. R&B. There's all kinds of different influences in it.”

The band plays originals by Essoudry plus arrangements of pieces from many sources: for example, Wade Hemsworth's Canadian classic, “The Black Fly Song”.

But what you really notice about the Mashers is that they're in constant motion. There's always at least a couple of the musicians marching about as they take solos and play up to the audience. And in the background, others will be flashing “Hooray!” signs or dancing or jumping about.

There's nothing shy about their physical presence, emphasized by the scarlet and white they're dressed in. And it all fits with the bright, generally up-beat music they're playing.

Essoudry said that this tour had been in the making since last October, when he started applying to summer festivals. Once he got some acceptances, he applied for a touring grant from the Canada Council, and once he got that, he started filling in the tour with club dates and figuring out which musicians could actually make the tour “because everyone's so busy”.

The band is touring with eight musicians, “but it's a different eight sometimes. It's not the same eight all the time. It's ideally nine, but most of the time it's eight.” For example, saxophonist Linsey Wellman missed the Montréal dates because he had a previously-scheduled gig in Iqaluit.

One logistical issue was Brian Sanderson's sousaphone, which, along with the two drums, provides the beat for the music. The brass instrument that Sanderson plays at local gigs weighs 40 pounds and the combination is more than seven feet tall. For the tour, he switched to a fibreglass sousaphone, the type used by marching bands, which is “much, much, much lighter”. It has brass fittings, but the bell is made of white fibreglass, and “for a tour like this, it's nice to have something lighter if you're going to be playing it every day and standing,” Essoudry said.

The tour started at the Victoria Jazz Festival on June 23, and then continued in Calgary and at the Edmonton Jazz Festival, and then the Montreal festival. The Mashers were then back in Ottawa for the Le Petit Chicago Monday night jam on July 2, before heading out to the Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues Festival in St. John's, Newfoundland, followed by dates in Moncton and Sackville in New Brunswick, then Charlottetown, PEI, then the Halifax Jazz Festival, “and then we're home.”

Their next major local gig will be at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival in early August.

Essoudry said the “response has been great. It's like 'What is this band? What is this crazy stuff that they're doing?' Sometimes it takes a while for people to get it, because it's spread out and it's getting your ears adjusted to where everything is coming from.”

The band has released two CDs, and is now working on a third, which will probably be available in December.

“We're playing a couple of songs to go on the third album in this tour and working on more stuff. It will be a different record. There's going to be some doubles; there's going to be some clarinet, some xylophone, some accordion, maybe some violins, other things. It's going to be a different kind of record than the other two that we've done. We'll look forward to that.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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