John MacLeod informs the Carleton University Jazz Camp audience about the Big Band's music.  ©Brett Delmage, 2012
John MacLeod informs the Carleton University Jazz Camp audience about the Big Band's music. ©Brett Delmage, 2012
You have 20 musicians before you. How do you create music that uses all their talents and fits them together to create something memorable and clear?

That's a challenge that trumpeter John MacLeod faces regularly with his Rex Hotel Jazz Orchestra, which he formed in 2003. It's a 20-piece big band, which plays on the last Monday of each month at the Rex jazz club in Toronto. Its first CD, Our First Set, won a Juno for Best Traditional Jazz Album in 2011.

Alayne McGregor talked to MacLeod at the Carleton University Jazz Camp last week, where he was teaching and was about to lead another 20-piece big band, composed of Ottawa musicians but playing MacLeod's charts from his orchestra. He explains how his orchestra started, how he writes for it, and the challenges of leading it. How are you going to transfer the charts from your Rex Hotel Jazz Orchestra, with whom you've worked for many years, to a completely new group of musicians?

John MacLeod: Well, a lot of stuff is written, and good musicians can read music, so that part shouldn't be difficult. If you have good musicians, they can read music. We're only going to rehearse for a short bit, so I'm expecting everything to come together quickly.

The drummer, Ted Warren, is in my band in Toronto. Brian Dickinson, the piano player, is a regular substitute in the band, and so there's a nucleus in the rhythm section at least. And that's one of the most important things. The drums is one of the really big, important things. And the rest of the people are going to be great musicians. So I don't expect it to be a problem.

Kelly Jefferson, the saxophone player, is a regular sub in my band, and I brought a chart that I featured him on many times, so I know I'm going to get that personal element from him, so it shouldn't be a problem at all. Have you ever done this before: played the charts with a new band?

MacLeod: Oh yes. I work in Denmark on a semi-regular basis. Every couple years I go over there and I take charts there. The same sort of thing: you do some rehearsing and put out a concert. It's the same material. The material is also played by other bands, universities and other professional rehearsal bands and so on, so it's not as though you have to have the guys to play.

But I do often have particular people in mind when I do the writing in the first place. I'm looking for a certain opportunity for the specific gifts of a particular sideman, and there's a certain chemistry particularly in the rhythm section of my regular band that I count on to infuse new energy. But I already have my own concept for things. It's just that with my own band I know it's going to go in directions I don't expect – and I enjoy that.

Whereas if I'm coming out here I know that I can at least get my original concept, if it's not something beyond that, which it may well be, because we have a really good rhythm section here, so it might well be very interesting. And that's the nature of jazz, too – you don't know what to expect until it's happened. What inspired you to start the band in 2003?

MacLeod: There was a number of things. I had been writing big band material for about, I suppose, almost 20 years at that point, initially for another big band in Toronto that I just was a sideman in. And then that band folded, so that was part of it.

Another part was that I was a long-time member of Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, and that band having folded at about that time, [I felt] there was no really world-class big band in Toronto at that point. I thought for myself and for the other players, and also I thought for the young players on the scene coming up through the school system, I thought it was important there was a role model, the same kind of role model that I had grown up with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, so I wanted it to be a band at that level, to allow younger players to see what big band playing was like. And we have enough players in Toronto, enough ex-Boss Brass players even, to put an excellent band together. Why the Rex Hotel? How do you fit that many musicians in there?

MacLeod: Well, we don't all get on the stage. We have the saxophones out on the floor, and pretty much everybody – maybe the guitar player and the French horns are on the floor – but, for the most part, it works out really great. It's a pretty big club, but not a huge club, and I actually prefer a space like that for the kind of music that we do, because it really resonates in the space. And unlike a concert hall, it's not all echo-y and the sound doesn't get diffused all over the space. So it's very present, and when you're there you really have a sense of the power of the voicings and of the musicians. I actually prefer it as a performance space than a fancier place. Was the Rex's tradition as a jazz place in Toronto also a factor?

MacLeod: Of course. And opportunity has something to do with it, too. I approached the Montreal Bistro, which was also an excellent club at that time, and they didn't think it would work. The Rex was totally into it from the beginning, so, I thought, “Well, they're into it, we'll just do it! And it's worked out wonderfully, and I really appreciate the people who run the place because they're so supportive. They've been very supportive of the band as well as the whole jazz scene. And, at this stage of the game, they are really the only full-time operating jazz club in Toronto, so I made the right choice, because the other ones disappeared.

My naming the band after the club was initially tongue-in-cheek because, if you've ever been there, you know it's not a very fancy place: it's one step up from a beer parlor. The title, the Rex Hotel Orchestra, sounded so grandiose; it reminded me of the Royal York Orchestra. So it was basically tongue-in-cheek, but at this stage of the game, it's almost in thanks of the amount of support that they've shown. How much of the band's repertoire is others' material which you arrange, and how much do you compose yourself?

MacLeod: I would imagine it's about two-thirds arrangements and one-third original compositions, something like that. I also have a few other people in the band that contribute material. Rick Wilkins, who is a long-time member of Boss Brass, and really my arranging hero in Canada, I use him as a role model as an arranger, and it's an honour to play some of his material. Andy Ballantyne, one of our saxophone players, also writes excellent charts. A couple of the other guys have also contributed one or two. The band isn't about that for me, the band is about an outlet for my writing, but when you have people of that calibre and you want to keep them happy as well, then you play their material because it sounds great and they feel good. But primarily it's an outlet for my writing: that's why I do it. When you write for the big band, where do you start? With the rhythm section? With the soloists?

MacLeod: That's an interesting question. No, I don't start with the rhythm section. I start on a score. I have a score in front of me and I start to compose ideas. I suppose things come out of the melody, things come out of the harmonies. When I used to write away from the computer, just playing the piano would give me ideas about where I wanted ideas to go. It's a process and it changes from chart to chart. I sometimes will write a chart based on a fragment of an idea – just two or three notes – and that will be inspiration for getting started on something. Or it might be a rhythm, or it might be a groove. Each chart in some ways is somewhat different. If I'm writing an arrangement of something, I'll often just put the melody down and write a simple rhythm section chart or baseline, and, before I know it, the arrangement starts to take on a life of its own: that happens a lot, too.

Or sometimes I just want to feature Mike Murley, for example. I wrote a chart that was built around what I knew he could come up with on a certain thing. So it was really inspired by who I thought was going to be playing the chart. Besides the Boss Brass, were there any other bands that really inspired you to get into composing and arranging?

MacLeod: I think [trumpeter] Kenny Wheeler's Big Band record inspired me more than anything to want to do it. Up to that point, I played in the Boss Brass, and I loved playing in the band, but I wasn't really a big band fan per se. I loved Duke Ellington's music and a couple of other bands, but the Boss Brass was one of the few big bands I really actually liked to hear. So it was perfect for me to get a chance to play in it.

As far as inspiring me to actually start writing, I never really thought about it until I heard Kenny Wheeler's record, and I thought, “Wow! Big bands: there's a lot of potential for creativity there and taking music in a direction I hadn't imagined before.”

And my first charts were very inspired by Kenny Wheeler and I gradually moved away from that into other areas. It's still an influence, but not as strong as the very first charts I wrote. You've put out one album with the orchestra and it did very well. Are you planning another album in the next few years?

MacLeod: Unfortunately, the economics of it is not very good. I had some money from an inheritance that I thought I could spare to put that one together. I thought maybe I'd get it enough money back from that to reinvest in a second one, but unfortunately it's been reinvested in other directions. There is a jazz fan in Toronto who is very, very interested in helping the scene, and he's putting money behind different projects, and he's offered several times to help [us] do another one with the big band. So I'm certainly not against that: I'm very shy about asking people to do that because it's a loss-leader. They're not going to get their money back. But he knows that; he's not doing it to make money.

So, yes, if we follow through on that, we should probably see another one in the next year or so. There's certainly tons of material. It's just the economics of it, really.

And sometimes it's hard just to get the guys in the studio. I was planning on just doing a session to see where it went, six months ago or so, and I just couldn't get everybody together. That happens. That's 20 musicians, right?

MacLeod: 20 professional musicians, and they all have busy lives, and everybody's teaching now, and when a studio was available, the guys weren't available. And I understand that.

You have to be very patient, and philosophical about these things. I'm not in any hurry, and I know I'm not going to get rich and famous doing it. I only do it for the personal satisfaction. I can wait for that. I actually get more personal satisfaction being in a club hearing the music live, and hearing the energy and the creativity of it live.

Although I was thrilled at the way the recording (Our First Set) did turn out, because we captured that somehow, and usually in a recording studio you don't get that kind of creative energy that we managed to get on that recording. I think it was because we were so relaxed, really. We didn't know we were making a record.

We had some time in the studio so “Let's go in for a couple of days and see what comes out of it.” And almost every cut is a first take. And there's some moments in the improvising that it just takes off the way it does in the club, and I was so thrilled about that because I wasn't really expecting it. I thought the charts will sound good, because we can balance them in the studio, but I didn't expect the creative energy to be at the level that it was.

That's my primary goal in the record, to see that that spirit is not lost in the process. It's difficult.

    – Alayne McGregor

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