My March 2011 visit to Toronto, Kingston and Montreal - Part 2

March 3, 2011 - Day 2 - Kingston

Greg Runions picked me up at my hotel in the morning to begin what was to be visits to several schools in the area. First up was an adult concert band at La Salle Secondary School. This concert band, directed by Chris Alfano, is part of a music program for adults. We read through a little concert band piece of mine, Festival Celebration. This piece was commissioned about ten years ago by Magee Secondary School in Vancouver for their annual elementary feeder band concert. I talked a little bit about the piece and the types of things I had in mind for a performance. The band also played through another piece they were working on. It is a lot of fun working with older students and the band sounded good. What a great program.

Reading through Festival Celebration

Reading through Festival Celebration

In the afternoon I visited with the Loyalist Collegiate and Vocational Institute Jazz Band. After telling them who I am, and what it is I do, I had the band play through Mike Kamuf’s nice arrangement of Watermelon Man, something they had been working on. I then worked on various performance issues in the arrangement. There are some very talented kids in that program.

I ended my first full day in Kingston working with the big band at Queen’s University, directed by my host Greg Runions. The band had been working on my piece Something For Ernie (Sierra Music Publications).  As with the earlier visits in the day, I told them a little about myself, then I worked on various things in the piece and my thoughts about how to play various sections and why I wrote them in the manner I did. This is a very fine band, full of wonderful musicians.

Working with the Queens University Big Band

Working with the Queens University Big Band

March 4, 2011 - Day 3

Friday began very early with a visit to Napanee Secondary School, which is about 20 minutes from Kingston. This was a small jazz ensemble with drums, bass, 3 trumpets, 1 trombone and 2 saxophones. In addition to the performers there was a large number of students observing. The students had been working on Mercy, Mercy, Mercy so I asked them to play it for me. Once again, after a short introduction on who I am and what I do, I worked with the students on the music. In this case rather than dealing with the written music, this session was more about improvising, in the broadest terms possible. To get to the point quickly, and without killing them with some music theory, we looped the first 2 measures. I first introduced the concept you could play a rhythmic solo using a single note, Bb in this case. I then started to add notes from the Bb blues scale and playing short 4 bar solos I slowly added a few more notes. I ended the session by having the students communicate with one another through their soloing - politely and even arguing. It was a lot of fun. I must add that the excellent bass player and drummer were very patient with this horn oriented session.

At noon Greg took me to my final high school session at Frontenac Secondary School back in Kingston. As we pull into the parking lot he tells me “by the way, this is not a band you are seeing at this school, but a string class.” Yikes! That was a little unexpected and definitely caused me a little concern. Now, I’ve always felt comfortable around string players and especially writing for them. But dealing with students is another thing altogether. I met the teacher and he filled me in on the students and what the class was about. I was then introduced to the students and again I said a few words about who I am and what I do. I then had the group play a few things from their method book.

It’s funny how you can start out a session like this wondering what you might do, and then when you hear the group you realize there are many things you can work on. I chose 2 things - sound and rhythm. As I listened to them play I could see, by looking around the room at this very large group, that some students were not doing much to create a sound. I could l also see that hand positions were an issue for some. These things I do remember from having taken class strings when I was a student at UBC. I talked about how your hand position may feel awkward now, as a beginner, but down the road having correct hand positions will help you play well and with greater ease. I also reminded them that a good sound is paramount to any musician and in any genre of music. I then talked about the importance of time and pulse and how important those things are when playing together in an ensemble and how much they contribute to a good ensemble sound. Since many of the students could only play on the open strings I had the students play the note D in whatever octave they felt comfortable. We then worked on playing together, emphasizing the importance of listening to one another. I then added the note A and I would cue shifts from one pitch to the other. Once they seemed to get comfortable grooving on D and A I then had the students improvise on the notes they knew (usually the open strings) in pairs or in groups of 3 or 4. Some were reluctant while others showed off. This session was a lot of fun for me, and something a little bit different.

Working with strings

Working with strings

I think the oddest thing about my visit to Frontenac Secondary School was meeting Fred Stride. Yes! There is another Fred Stride. The only Fred Strides I had ever known were my late grandfather and my father. This particular Fred Stride teaches english and science, but neither of us felt there was any link between us. Still it was fun to meet another Fred Stride. Fred doesn’t seem to too popular as a name these days, but I once played in a band with 3 Freds. Two of us were in the trumpet section!

Later in the afternoon I did a radio interview with Dave Coon at CFRC Radio. Dave played a couple of tracks from my big band cd: The Fred Stride Jazz Orchestra: Forward Motion (Cellar Live) and asked me about my music and the jazz scene in Vancouver. The hour just flew past.

The evening was my first rehearsal with the Greg Runion’s Big Band. The only musician I had worked with before was trumpet player Brian O’Kane. Brian had lived in Vancouver for a couple of years in his earlier incarnation as an RCMP officer. Of course I had gotten to know Greg over the previous couple of days and I met lead alto player Chris Alfano, the day before. The other players were a mix of local Kingston players with a few imports from Toronto and Montreal.

Greg Runions big band for this concert was:
Saxophones: Chris Alfano, Andrew Pitkin, Jon Stewart, Chet Doxas, Merlin Williams
Trumpets: Jocelyn Couture, Brian O’Kane, Blair Yarrington, Janet MacRae, Mike Verner
Trombones: Taylor Donaldson, Andy Sparling, John Palmer, Tim Booth
Guitar: Dave Barton
Piano: David Braid
Bass: Artie Roth
Drums: Mike Cassells
Vibes: Greg Runions

This is a good band populated with some very fine soloists. We played through Opposition Party, Gently Swaying, A Few Shades Darker, Oddly Enough, Spinny, Elegy, Input/Process (the first movement from Machina: Concerto for Jazz Orchestra) and my arrangement of Michael Brecker’s tune Peep (winner of the 2007 International Jazz Arranging Competition). None of these charts are easy to play. We also read down 3 of Greg’s pieces - The New Cure, Early Sunset and Catharine Anne. What a nice writer Greg is. This is one of the great things about traveling to another part of the country - meeting, learning about, and hearing, other like-minded musicians in the same country. This was something that CBC’s “Jazz Radio Canada” used to provide in the 1970s - a sense of a Canadian jazz community.

Greg Runions Big Band - The Friday night rehearsal

Greg Runions Big Band - The Friday night rehearsal

The rehearsal, while exhausting for all, went very well. What I really appreciated was the serious attitude of all the players and their willingness to totally dig in and play some very hard music. We finished off the evening at a local brew pub for a little socializing.

March 5, 2011 - Day 4

I had Saturday morning free. Whew! It was great to not have to rush off somewhere, I had been going steadily since I arrived in Ontario. After lunch we headed off to our 2:00 dress rehearsal. But before heading over to the Kingston Library, where the concert was being held, I went over the program and the order of pieces. It struck me that we were going to be playing a pretty intense program. So I thought it might be nice to add something like a “jazz sorbet” to break things up. Something to tap your toes to. I had brought along a couple of extra pieces with me, and seeing the trombones were a little underrepresented in the program, I decided to add my Basie-Nestico styled feature for the trombone section - Sammy’s ‘Bones.

Greg Runions Big Band - afternoon rehearsal

Greg Runions Big Band - afternoon rehearsal

Running a dress rehearsal, especially of difficult music, on the day of a performance is always a balancing act. As the director/conductor you are constantly asking yourself questions. Should we rehearse this chart all the way through, or just “tops and tails” (intros and endings)? Should I just run some of the shakier spots? How much should I fuss over exactness? When is it time to move on to another piece? Lingering too long on any particular chart can needlessly prolong the rehearsal. This in turn can cause some physical and mental exhaustion, as well as some anxiety, for the players. Time management is critical. In order to keep the rehearsal flowing efficiently I have to trust that the players will take care of things on their end. The band in front of me was excellent, so I felt confident that everything would be just fine. Another big issue with me for any performance, but especially jazz, is that the performance should have a certain feeling of spontaneity. With this in mind, over rehearsing on the day of a performance can be somewhat of a bad thing. I feel that hammering away at the music on the day of the concert can cause everyone to a be little overly cautious, and lose that indefinable “life spark” of the music in the process. I feel it is sometimes better to allow a looseness in the ensemble playing in favour of more energy and creativity. Of course this approach is not without its risks.

At the end of the rehearsal Greg and I conferred about the final program and because things were running a little longer than we had anticipated Greg very graciously decided to drop his piece Early Sunset.

stride-poster-small

Our concert began at 8:00pm in the Kingston Public Library. The hall was very nice and quite comfortable for the big band and our capacity audience.

The final program ended up being:

The New Cure - Greg Runions
Opposition Party - Fred Stride
Gently Swaying - Fred Stride
Sammy’s ‘Bones - Fred Stride
Elegy - Fred Stride
Oddly Enough - Fred Stride

Intermission

Catharine Anne - Greg Runions
Peep - Michael Brecker - arr. Fred Stride
Input/Process - Mvt I from Machina: A Concerto for Jazz Orchestra - Fred Stride
A Few Shades Darker - Fred Stride
Spinny - Fred Stride

There were many great moments throughout the concert - some fabulous ensemble work, some exciting and creative rhythm section playing and some stunning solo work. A couple of the memorable solos for me were David Braid’s solos throughout the evening, Chet Doxas on Gently Swaying and Brian O’Kane, particularly on Elegy. Brian seemed to be featured on almost every chart, albeit unintentionally. At one point I joked about this with the audience and welcomed them to “The Brian O’Kane Show.” Without missing a beat Brian leaped out of his chair and did a little dance. A very spontaneously funny moment.

Greg Runions Big Band - the Concert

Greg Runions Big Band - the Concert

Still, even after cutting one of Greg’s charts, the concert was still running a little long. It can be difficult to control the lengths of sets in a jazz performance due to extended, or open, solos. Then there is my talking about the music. Well, I tried to keep my comments on the shorter side, but…          After the first 3 tunes in the second set Greg felt we should drop another piece, to avoid going over time and incurring additional staffing expense for the hall. Besides, it was beginning to feel to me like we had “said enough.” Greg left the choice up to me. The problem was do I finish softly with A Few Shades Darker, or something a little more rousing like Spinny. Well, I decided on the softer side and Spinny was cut. Another big consideration for making this choice is that A Few Shades Darker always gets a great reaction from audiences.

A had a great time in Kingston and Greg was an absolutely fantastic host. The band was wonderful to work with and all of the outreach sessions in the various schools were a lot of fun. I hope I get an opportunity to visit with my new friends in Kingston again.

Greg - thanks for inviting me.

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