McGill Jazz Orchestra I
Bronson Centre Theatre, Ottawa
Monday, May 13, 2019 – 8 p.m.
On Monday evening, the McGill Jazz Orchestra I, directed by JUNO-winning composer Christine Jensen, performed a packed and vibrant hour-long concert for students at the MusicFest Nationals in Ottawa. It was a show I was glad to have heard.
While ostensibly a student band, the orchestra includes many musicians who have played professionally here in Ottawa, and its standard of playing was extremely high. Montreal's jazz scene and McGill University's jazz program are strongly entwined, with many well-known jazz musicians teaching there and many of its graduates enlivening the scene.
The show opened and closed with two mid-60s tunes by Thad Jones, whose innovative compositions brought a new framework and new sounds to big band writing. The Orchestra presented a “Thad Jones Lineage” tribute concert in April, and “The Waltz You Swang for Me” was an engaging opening number. It featured Ottawa's Claire Devlin on flying soprano sax soloing over the exuberant full band.
Vocalist Sarah Rossy brought a crystalline and beautifully controlled voice to two pieces. On “Nos Étoiles” by Joel Miller, she sang the French lyrics by Jessica Vigneault articulately combined with forceful piano and well-phrased tenor sax and trombones. She also added ethereal wordless vocals to Kenny Wheeler's “Gentle Piece”, effortlessly reaching high notes over a deep double bass melody from Cole Birney-Stewart, and warm trombone lines. Her serene approach was complemented by alto saxophonist Elie LaJoie's solo, low and clear and calm, and by trumpeter Lex French's attenuated and pensive solo.
Saxophonist (and McGill professor) Rémi Bolduc added intense and exploratory alto lines to two pieces. The first was written in his honour by Montreal big band composer Joe Sullivan; in “Le Bolduc”, in which he created extended variations on a theme, sometimes strolling, sometimes pointed, against a driving ensemble rhythm. Christine Jensen's “Arbutus” was a soaring tribute to the beauties of Canada's west coast; it built from a constellation of notes on alto sax and piano and glistening cymbals to a warm melody from Bolduc and then further to a dramatic full-ensemble expression before slowing to a thoughtful close – but always crisply performed by all.
Trumpeter Jocelyn Couture was clearly an audience favourite. His trumpet pyrotechnics on “Stardust” and “El Dopa” evoked extremely strong applause and even a few whoops and hollers, though perhaps had a bit too much swagger for me. The orchestra played the Hoagy Carmichael number in the classic arrangement by Doc Severinsen and the "Tonight Show" band, full-out and nicely brassy, and Couture matched that energy with considerable trumpet bravura and some extremely high notes as a closer.
“El Dopa”, by renowned Canadian jazz trumpeter and bandleader Maynard Ferguson, heated up the room with lively Latin rhythms,. Couture's assured trumpet flourishes and Benjamin Gilbert's fluent guitar solo danced on top. By the end, Couture was moving to the music as he played edgier and edgier lines. The entire ensemble went all-out and then Couture took over for a solo that stretched up and up until the band roared back with Couture in the lead, and the piece ended abruptly to huge applause.
The show ended with Thad Jones' “Back Bone”, with Bolduc and the trombone section creating expressive variations over the hard-swinging full band, powered by Aaron Dolman's powerful drumming. When it ended with a fanfare, the audience responded with strong and extended applause.
The show was completely sold out, with every seat on the main floor and in the balcony filled and latecomers standing at the back. While the actual music sounded great in the hall, the announcements mic frequently swallowed up and garbled Jensen's between-song announcements, making it difficult to recognize the names of soloists and song titles. The sound system in the Bronson Centre is scheduled for an upgrade as part of its upcoming partnership with a Toronto music venue; one hopes this will improve. As well, the younger audience at the back of the hall appeared to be particularly restless; while many were clearly engaged by the music, a sizable minority was constantly shifting and shuffling.
This was a fresh and varied concert. The challenging music the orchestra played raised the bar in terms of what you can do with a big band. Everything clicked together; the pieces had focus and each brought a different feel to the concert. If the purpose of these concerts is to show MusicFest participants what jazz musicians can achieve, it certainly succeeded.
- The Waltz You Swang for Me [Thad Jones]
- Nos Étoiles [Joel Miller, with lyrics by Jessica Vigneault]
- Le Bolduc [Joe Sullivan]
- Arbutus [Christine Jensen]
- Gentle Piece [Kenny Wheeler]
- Stardust [Hoagy Carmichael, as performed by Doc Severinsen and the "Tonight Show" band]
- El Dopa [Maynard Ferguson]
- Back Bone [Thad Jones]
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