The magic of Miles Davis
Happy New Year!
I canâ€™t tell you how excited I am to share to music of Miles Davis with you this coming Thursday. Weâ€™ll be taking this a step further by not only delving into the music but also the lessons that we can learn from the music and the way in which Miles and his sidemen played on some of the famous recordings many of us know so well.
Last night we had the rehearsal for the concert. As you will learn on Thursday, there was a deliberate attempt on my part to inject a substantial degree of uncertainty into this concert. While I typically send out music to musicians many weeks, or sometimes even months, before a show, in this case I left it to just three days before the rehearsal. Our rehearsal was short but sweet and weâ€™ll do a quick soundcheck on the day and weâ€™ll then perform. Does this sound underprepared? The truth is that in order to truly do justice to this music and what it means, we must leave room for magic to happen. If we plan everything ahead and know whatâ€™s coming, we lose the potential for surprises for both the musicians and the audience.
This is, in fact, one of the lessons we can learn from Miles who often took an approach of intentionally rehearsing less. Even at the very famous recording sessions for Kind of Blue, there were many surprises for the musicians such as the scant instructions to play â€œthe soundsâ€ of a series of modes on â€œFlamenco Sketchesâ€ with no set amount of time to be spent on any mode. In taking this approach, Miles gave the musicians incredible freedom to create in the moment.
One of the most exciting things about Thursday is that there is so much room for anything to happen. I can promise you some incredible music, the opportunity to learn a lot about the music and more, and the opportunity to see and hear some of our best musicians explore and stretch their musical legs. We had a lot of fun at our rehearsal last night and I have no doubt this will be amplified many times over at the show.
I look forward to sharing it all with you soon for what promises to be a wonderful evening of music and learning.
Launching “Future Perfect”
They say time flies when you’re having fun. It must be true, because I can’t believe that this will be my seventh year as resident vocalist with the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra. I love performing with the OJO and I’ve been so grateful to the orchestra for welcoming me to the fold with such warmth and camaraderie. And I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to write and arrange for such a talented and varied ensemble of musicians.
This is why I’m so excited to be launching my new album, “Future Perfect” as part of the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra’s fourteenth season. Although the album was recorded in Montreal (with a group of musicians I have been friends with for nearly 20 years), there is still a strong OJO connection to my new album. Several of my original songs on this album were premiÃ¨red at recent OJO concerts. For example, I debuted “Tout dÃ©brancher” and “Les petites choses” in spring 2017 at the From Rio to Paris concert. And the song “Sans Ailes”, a poem by Stanley PÃ©an for which I wrote music, was premiÃ¨red at the concert “La Chanson franÃ§aise” in winter 2017.
Above: Stanley PÃ©an and friend; Terry Vossbein, Diane Nalini and Adrian Cho; Rick Rangno
When I attended the OJO’s 2015 concert “Inventions,” inspired by the works of Leonardo da Vinci, I fell under the spell of OJO trumpeter and arranger Rick Rangno’s funky piece “Mechanical Knight.” I just had to write words for it. I kept imagining what would happen if da Vinci’s robot knight came to life and fell for the person who had wound him up. The piece is in 5/4, which lends it a wonderful forward propulsion, with a drum beat that evokes the timing of clockwork. So a big thank you to Rick for contributing his fun music to this album.
In planning this recording, it occurred to me that every song I had chosen is about the future in some way, whether real or imagined. “Future Perfect” seemed like an apt title for the album – a verb tense that doubles as a whispered wish. Some of these songs, like Autumn nocturne, Veinte aÃ±os, and Lâ€™amour d’autrefois, look back on a lost love and imagine an alternate ending, a happier future.
Others, like The Last Hurrah, Mechanical Knight, and Tout dÃ©brancher, consider where our fascination with technology and the material world might lead us. Some songs are joyful invitations to embrace honest conversations about love (Letâ€™s take a walk on the wild side) and to enjoy the simple things (Les petites choses).
Sometimes, we just need a quiet place to focus our energies and get away from the distractions of modern life. I was fortunate to attend a wonderful artistâ€™s residency in Spain for two weeks in the summer of 2017 at Arte+EcologÃa in Almeria, where I completed several songs for this album.
On Saturday, December 21st, I’ll be joined by some of the country’s finest jazz musicians and my longtime friends. From the recording band, there will be Dany Roy on saxophone, Alec Walkington on bass and Camil BÃ©lisle on the drums. Mike Rud, who played guitar on the record, is unable to join us as he has taken up a teaching post in BC. But I’m delighted that the wonderful Tim Bedner will be joining us in his stead.
I’m very much looking forward to sharing this music with the wonderful audiences that support the orchestra with their enthusiastic energy. Thank you for your continued support!
Alec, Mike, Diane, Dany & Camil
Tim and Diane
The thinking behind our new season
In this, our fourteenth season, we are doing some things differently. For one thing, weâ€™ve started the season quite later. This is also the first time weâ€™re trying matinees and Iâ€™m excited about that as it will present the opportunity for people to attend some of the concerts where they might not have otherwise been able to make it in the evening.
These details aside, letâ€™s talk about the programming. You already know the what but letâ€™s talk about the why.
The idea with the first concert is to start with something both special and different. Itâ€™s special as we have the pleasure of hosting the launch of Dianeâ€™s fifth album. It will be different in that this will be with a band that is comprised primarily of musicians from outside of the OJO. Itâ€™s been a little while since weâ€™ve had some out-of-town musical guests so it will be exciting to have three within this one band.
Our second concert, a tribute to Miles Davis, is something Iâ€™ve wanted to do for a long time. Of course the music is fabulous.Â While weâ€™ve played some of Milesâ€™s music in a few concerts over the years, it was actually way back in 2005, when I presented my first concert at the NAC with a program called â€œThe Magic of Miles Davis,â€ that we last played a complete concert of Miles music although we did do a Gil Evans/Miles Davis tribute in 2007. Over the years Iâ€™ve often written and spoken about the ways in which Miles Davisâ€™s music, playing, and leadership provide lessons for life, work, and more. This is a topic I hold dear to my heart and these lessons are ones, in addition to others, that I try to live by every day. I really want to share those with more people.
Our third concert, a tribute to Mingus and Monk, will be a return to a couple of figures whom weâ€™ve also celebrated variously in the past. After the chill cool of Miles, something that was the complete opposite seemed appropriate. This will be rousing, raucous, and a bit raunchy! Mingus and Monk definitely fit the bill and damn itâ€™s just great music to play and to listen to.
Our fourth concert is all about the music from the era of the Great Depression. When you look at everything going on in the world today, a glass-half-empty view of things could lead one to get a bit down but of course thereâ€™s always the glass-half-full view and thatâ€™s what I wanted to recall and take inspiration from with this program. Itâ€™s also, in my humble opinion, some of theÂ most exciting music in jazz especially when you think about everything that was going on in the time and how the incredible composers and musicians innovated during these early years.
Our fifth concert, featuring tunes from classic animated movies reworked in a jazz style, is one that I fully expected the more serious jazz fans to pass off as light fare. Every season itâ€™s good to include at least one thing that will stretch our audience. Something that they might have never heard of before (last seasonâ€™s equivalent show was the music of Reed Kotler) or something that they arenâ€™t too sure about. This is that show. I canâ€™t wait to work on the arrangements for this one.
Our sixth concert is, in many ways, a safe way to end the season. This is the bread and butter music of every jazz orchestra and big band. These are the old classics. However we never want to do what other jazz orchestras are doing so you can expect some surprises including some lesser-known tunes.
In all, I think this will be a great season and Iâ€™m really looking forward to sharing it with everyone, working with our musicians again, and seeing familiar and new faces in the audience. See you at a concert soon!
Getting ready to â€œStraighten Up And Fly Rightâ€
As a child, I grew up listening and singing along to Ella, Billie, Sarah, Carmen, Blossom, Frank, Louis and many more, including the incomparable Nat King Cole. But it wasnâ€™t until I was a teenager that I began to listen to his â€œKing Cole Trioâ€ albums in a really obsessive fashion. I discovered how much I was drawn to his warm and sincere vocals. I loved his effortless swing, his outstanding piano comping and the fabulous â€˜togethernessâ€™ of his drummerless trio with Oscar Moore on guitar and Johnny Miller on the bass.
I loved the fact that, nestled amongst more widely-covered classics like â€œSweet Lorraineâ€ and â€œToo Marvelous For Words,â€ there were other, lesser known tunes that nobody else could make swing quite like him.
Take the song â€œWhat can I say (after I say Iâ€™m sorry?)â€Â Despite some rather ho-hum lyrics, Nat made this tune so memorably his own. Once youâ€™ve heard Natâ€™s version, the recordings made in subsequent decades by Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin pale in comparison and none swing as much as Natâ€™s.
Listening to his recording of â€œâ€˜Tis Autumn,â€ you realize another quality that sets Natâ€™s interpretations apart – his unique melodic variations. These invariably improve and enhance the melody. His little changes are so subtle and unobtrusive that you donâ€™t quite realize what heâ€™s done until youâ€™re listening to another singerâ€™s version of the same tune and finding yourself wishing for the â€œNat-isms.â€
When I suggested to Adrian that the OJO do a tribute to Nat for the 100th anniversary of his birth, I was initially resigned to the fact that Iâ€™d have to abandon my usual multilingual repertoire. But as I researched Natâ€™s discography more thoroughly in preparation for the show, I was amazed to discover that he had made records in French, Spanish and Portuguese. His beautiful voice rises above any issues of pronunciation as he sings some of his big hits in translation.
Iâ€™m very excited about performing this show on April 6th with Mark Ferguson on piano, Adrian Cho on bass, Tim Bedner on guitar and Mike Tremblay on saxophone. We look forward to sharing this music with you. Can’t wait to see you there!
Why I became part of OJO’s team
Iâ€™m Cathy and I help Ottawa Jazz Orchestra with the financial and administrative responsibilities. Iâ€™m also a musician: a classically trained clarinetist that loves playing baritone saxophone, too. I play all the clarinets and all the saxophonesâ€¦even the monstrous bass saxophone. Iâ€™ve played clarinet in concert bands, woodwind quintets, chamber groups, and symphony ensembles. I have also played in saxophone quartets, jazz bands and show bands on baritone saxophone.
I was hired to perform with OJO back when it was called Impressions in Jazz Orchestra. The music was challenging enough to require significant hours of â€˜woodsheddingâ€™ on my part. Listening carefully to original performances, learning the nuances of the notes on the page, rehearsing the instrument switches so that there were no glitches, practicing so that the music flowed. Then THE rehearsal with the whole group: intense, long, and scary! Scary because it became clear that there were a few spots that could have used more rehearsal but now time was running out. And then it was the performance. And it was exhilarating! Everyone pulled out all the stops and IJO made exciting music that our audience loved. Worth every bit of effort.
As a doubler (playing more than one instrument on a single gig), I got hired for quite a few more gigs with IJO/OJO and had great fun on every single one. More musical challenge than I had had for a long while. Lots of audience appreciation, too. And OJO was performing music that no one else was doing. Quite simply, I wanted to give something back.
When Adrian invited me to join the board, I didnâ€™t need time to think about it. I know that an organization like this takes a lot of behind the scenes activities. Adrian had been single-handedly doing most of it with the help of a few close friends. Keeping this type of music performance viable seemed like a good idea and I wanted to help achieve that: it has been several years now, through a few long-distance stints, and retirement, and continuous OJO changes and challenges. Though I no longer perform with them, I love that I can still help Ottawa Jazz Orchestra bring such diverse concerts to Ottawa audiences. Best of all, itâ€™s still exciting and fun and of course the most wonderful music!
How the OJO goes beyond the jazz mainstream
Recently at a pre-show chat for our December concert, Bird in the Reeds, someone asked me where the ideas for OJO programming come from.
One of the things I’ve always felt strongly about is the need to present variety and to introduce music to people that they might not have previously heard.
Way back in 2005 when I first began presenting concerts in Ottawa, I was always determined to present something different and unique. There are many jazz orchestras around the world and I find that far too many of them limit themselves to a very narrow subset of the genre. Jazz is a very broad genre and while there’s the “jazz mainstream,” I’ve always been fascinated by the third stream of music that’s a hybrid of jazz and classical music as well as neoclassical music that is strongly influenced by jazz. I’m also fascinated by the huge variety of acoustic instruments and their timbres. Incorporating instruments not typically found in the jazz mainstream is always a great way to add a new element.
In January we have a fantastic concert in which the largest part of the ensemble will be strings as in violin, violas, celli, and harp. All too often, when strings are employed in jazz they are relegated to playing “pads” as in long, sustained, notes. Whenever we have strings I always want to give them interesting, groovy, swinging parts. Itâ€™s was more interesting for them and for the audience.
Generally I program each season as it comes although there have been so notable works such as Milestones and Sketches of Spain (written by Gil Evans for Miles Davis), Focus (written by Eddie Sauter for Stan Getz), that were planned for one or more seasons ahead before we actually scheduled and performed them. Thatâ€™s usually because they are such large and complex works that the logistics require substantial planning. Apart from these major works, I usually donâ€™t think about the next season much until about six months before we announce it and then itâ€™s a matter of figuring out a cohesive set of concerts with diverse programming through the season and where each concert can both entertain and educate our audiences and our musicians can be both challenged and have a lot of fun. This last goal is so important as I feel that when the musicians are having fun on stage it is so much more enjoyable for the audience too.
Supersax and the music of Bird
The idea for our second season concert, Bird in the Reeds, began with my love of the sound of the saxophone quintet. I was reminded of this instrumentation when we were playing some of the saxophone quintet arrangements from the Terry Gibbs Vibes on Velvet albums in the Wesâ€™ Coast Vibes concert from last season.
The typical saxophone quintet is the same lineup you see in the front row of the jazz orchestra: two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, and a baritone saxophone. The combined sound of these five saxophones is a thing of beauty. Occasionally in a big band tune you will hear the saxophone section play a soli where the saxophones play a melodic line that is harmonised through the section. One of my favourite early examples is the saxophone soli in Cottontail. Check it out at in this recording. The soli starts about 2 minutes into the recording. Another favourite saxophone soli is the one in Benny Carterâ€™s Symphony in Riffs. You can check out a recording here. The soli starts about 39 seconds into the recording and continues throughout most of the piece interspersed by various solos.
One of the things that gives these saxophone soli such a unique shimmering sound is the vibrato that the players use. Just like string players do when they pivot their left fingers back and forth, the saxophone players must rapidly move their jaw up and down to vary their embouchure, the shape of their lips around the saxophone mouthpiece, in order to rapidly oscillate the pitch up and down. Itâ€™s such a critically important technique because itâ€™s often essential to a certain sound but it can sound terrible when overused. Furthermore, when multiple instruments are playing together, they have to match the depth and speed of their vibrato to achieve a uniform sound.
Once I had decided that I would like to feature a saxophone quintet, it took less than five seconds for the incredible music of the Supersax group to rise to the top of the list of candidates. Although they played jazz from previous decades, Supersax was actually formed in 1972 by saxophonist Med Flory and bassist Buddy Clark. Itâ€™s particularly interesting that the primary goal of the group was to play harmonised versions of Charlie Parkerâ€™s improvised solos. By harmonising Birdâ€™s solos, they were effectively arranging and orchestrating, in written form, melodies that Parker improvised in real-time. In a way, this is somewhat similar to the art of vocalese in which Jon Hendricks and others would pen lyrics to improvised solos of various musicians.
The Supersax arrangements are a wonderful reminder of the brilliance of Birdâ€™s soloing. His improvised melodies have been played and sung by so many people over the years. Most jazz musicians, and many listeners, can quote some of his solos verbatim. By harmonising these solos Med Flory showed us and reminded us of just how strong Parkerâ€™s melodic compositions were. Many of the arrangements were also an incredible example of the virtuosity, not just of Bird, but of the players in the Supersax group.
Thereâ€™s so much interesting history about the Supersax group and itâ€™s leader Med Flory. Although the group didnâ€™t really come into public existence until 1972, the origins go all the way back to 1956. Flory began transcribing some of Birdâ€™s solos and then wrote arrangements in which he harmonised the solos. He and saxophonists Joe Maini, Joe Kennedy, Richie Kamuca, and Bill Hood played them for fun. When bassist Buddy Clark heard them he suggested Flory write more arrangements. However it wasnâ€™t until the 1970s when the Supersax group really became a thing. The group apparently rehearsed in Floryâ€™s home for over a year until Floryâ€™s wife suggested they play at a Los Angeles club called â€œDontes.â€ The crowds loved what they heard and the group ended up recording Supersax Plays Bird for Capitol Records and went on to tour all over the world and record nine albums, with one of them winning a Grammy award in 1974.
Oh yeah and Med Flory was also an actor who appeared in TV shows such as Maverick, Gomer Pyle, Perry Mason, Daniel Boone, and in movies such as The Nutty Professor with Jerry Lewis!
Isfahan from the Far East Suite
I remember many, many years ago we were performing Such Sweet Thunder, also known as the Shakespearean Suite, composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. A musician in the audience was talking to me after the concert and said, “Now I understand why Sandy Gordon is in this orchestra!” Sandy has been with the OJO since the very beginning, along with a handful of other fine musicians including our drummer Mark Rehder, trumpeter Rick Rangno, trombonist Mark Ferguson, and saxophonist and clarinettist Dave Renaud. Sandy used to play principal alto sax in the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces for many years and just retired recently. He has the most incredible control over the saxophone. This performance of Isfahan, one of the lovely ballads from Ellington and Strayhorn’s Far East Suite, and arguably one of the most beautiful ballads ever written in jazz, features the most sublime playing from Sandy. This was recorded at our Lush Life concert last season. I hope you enjoy this. I can listen to it over and over.
Bill Evans and Horace Silver – a perfect pairing
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.
Amad from the Far East Suite
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.