For our first concert I started not with the music but with the instrumentation. I’ve always had a love affair with the nonet – a nine-piece ensemble that’s not as large as a big band in size but still has a substantial sound. An ensemble of this size is what often comes to mind when we talk about “chamber jazz” which suggests jazz performed by smaller ensembles like those used in chamber music. Small enough that they can fit into palace chambers or large rooms.
In the very first concert I presented in Ottawa in 2005, the main act was a performance of the Birth of the Cool music which was composed by Gil Evans, Johnny Carisi, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Miles Davis, and others. The album is most commonly associated with Miles Davis because he was the one who got a gig at the Royal Roost and a recording contract for the group. Yet the music and the concept of that nonet was birthed in the New York apartment of Gil Evans where he and other musicians used to hang out, listen to recordings, and talk about possible projects that might undertake.
The Birth of the Cool nonet had six horns, grouped into three pairs, alto and baritone saxophone, trumpet and trombone, and the conical brass pair of French horn and tuba. They were backed up by a classic three-piece rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. That instrumentation was heavily inspired by the Claude Thornhill Orchestra that Gil Evans was a part of. The Thornhill orchestra incorporated French horns, clarinets, bass clarinets, flutes, and tuba, and had all of the horns playing without vibrato. This was a unique concept at a time when the â€œsweetâ€ bands, such as those of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, employed copious vibrato. Thornhill also employed mixed voicings that blended the various instruments to achieve a range of different textures. The unique sounds were also obtained by having the instruments play at the extremes of their ranges. Sometimes this would be done in counter-intuitive fashion with the bass instruments playing up higher than the treble instruments. The Thornhill band had eighteen members, and Evans and the musicians who would eventually help form the Birth of the Cool nonet came up with the idea of an ensemble that would be half that number but would have a sound palette similar to the Thornhill orchestra.
Over the years we have performed other music written for this same instrumentation including some great music written by Virginia composer, Terry Vosbein, who came to visit us in Ottawa last season when we performed his fabulous La Chanson Francaise, a suite of French music which he scored for a nonet of alto and baritone saxophone, two trumpets, two trombones, piano, bass, and drums.
For our first 2018-2019 concert, we’re using yet another slightly different nonet configuration. This one has five horns – alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, trumpet, and trombone, and a four-piece rhythm section with piano, guitar, bass, and drums.
What all of these nonet configurations have in common is an opportunity and a challenge for a composer or arranger to make a small group sound much bigger. It’s the sound of a little big band and additional variety can be added by having the saxophone players double on other instruments such as flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet.
As a bassist, I have always admired Chuck Israels for his playing but also for his writing. In recent years he has written two wonderful sets of arrangements for a nonet. One is the music of Horace Silver and another is the music of Bill Evans. Two pianists with vastly different styles but together they make a wonderfully complementary pair if you interweave their music together. Silver’s music is incredibly groovy with plenty of blues, dirt, and grease thrown in. Evans’s music is much more inventive and explores and pushes the boundaries of rhythm and harmony. It’s definitely more of a challenge to play and sometimes to listen to but the rewards are there. In both cases, this music was written by pianists who orchestrated primarily through the keyboard. This is especially true for Evans who played primarily in a trio format with just piano, bass, and drums where the piano was the primary melodic and harmonic device.
Israels took all of this great music and in arranging it for a nonet, he did what great arrangers should do which is not just to orchestrate the music for the instrumentation at hand, but also to re-compose parts, incorporate other material, re-harmonise, and effectively create new works out of great source material.
I’m pretty confident this will be the first time these arrangements will have been performed anywhere in Canada and we’re really looking forward to tackling them. You can check out a performance by Israels’s own nonet performing the Bill Evans tunes, “Show-Type Tune” right here.
Last season we paid tribute to the great Billy Strayhorn who was best known as Duke Ellington’s collaborator. We performed an entire program of music composed by Strayhorn and Ellington in a concert entitled “Lush Life.” We’re thrilled to share some of the footage from that concert now. Check out this performance of “Amad” from the fabulous Far East Suite. It’s the eighth movement in a fabulous nine-movement suite. This performance features Mark Ferguson on trombone and the whole band just having a ball playing this great music.
It’s hard to believe that the OJO has been running now for thirteen seasons. It’s arguably even more than that. Way back in 2005, I presented a single concert entitled “The Magic of Miles Davis” at the NAC Fourth Stage as an initial concert in a series to be known as “Impressions in Jazz.” The following year I presented two concerts, one at the Fourth Stage, and another at Dominion-Chalmers United Church. It was at this second concert that the “Impressions in Jazz Orchestra” made its first appearance and this is what would eventually later become the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra.
The really exciting part about that concert and what would follow was not just that the ensemble brought together many of the best professional jazz and classical musicians in Ottawa but that our programming for each concert was so unique and that we always tried to both entertain and educate. We certainly weren’t shy about taking on challenges. Presenting major works such as Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain, and even a whole Nutcracker show with dancers, actors, and multimedia were major undertakings but so worth it.
Over the years, we performed countless concerts, almost always featuring larger ensembles and we relished employing unusual instrumentation. At that 2006 concert we performed two major works: Duke Ellington’s Liberian Suite and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass. While Liberian Suite does employ a typical 15-piece big band, it also has vibes, a vocal baritone solo, and a violin solo. Africa/Brass has very interesting instrumentation including French horns, euphoniums, and various woodwinds.
I always loved performing and presenting music that crossed genres between jazz, classical, and other forms. At various concerts we had swing dancers, tap dancers, modern dancers, and even Shakespearean actors. Over the years we’ve presented everything straight ahead jazz to free jazz and we’ve explored works influenced by music from Spain, France, Brazil, Cuba, and a lot more.
Many of the works we performed were Ottawa or Canadian premieres. Along the way we changed our name to the more fitting “Ottawa Jazz Orchestra.” For a while our home was in the double ballrooms of the Crowne Plaza hotel (now the Delta) and then later we were at Dominion-Chalmers for many seasons. We tried the Shenkman Arts Centre for one season. Eventually we came back to the National Arts Centre and the Fourth Stage. Fitting bigger ensembles on the stage is sometimes a challenge but we love the ambience and the recent renovations have made the sound in the room wonderful for even with larger ensembles.
Occasionally people ask if we ever perform at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival. We’re actually one of the few local ensembles (perhaps even the only one) that has performed in three of the leading series in the festival. In 2005 we performed in the Connoisseur Series at Library and Archives, then in 2006 we performed in the Studio Series at the National Arts Centre, and in 2008 we performed on the main stage in Confederation Park as part of the Great Canadian Jazz series. It has indeed been a while since we were at the festival and perhaps we’ll go back one day but we feel honoured to have presented the performances we did.
What has been most incredible about the OJO is that every year has truly been better than the last. We owe so much of our success to our audience and to the incredible musicians that we’re so lucky to have in Ottawa.