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Fraser MacPherson

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Fraser MacPherson, the late tenor saxophone player, was an important figure on the Vancouver music scene. I first encountered him in the early 1970s, when he was a member of the Bob Hales Big Band, which was full of many of the major jazz players in the city. While I did aspire to eventually play with the band (which I did later on), my first face to face working with these musicians was for the CBC Radio program Jazz Radio Canada featuring the Bob Hales Big band playing some music written by myself and the late Ray Sikora. I had written a suite and the middle movement featured tenor saxophone with Fraser as the soloist and, as always, he played my little melody beautifully in his Lester Young inspired manner.

I always enjoyed being around Fraser, hearing him play in small groups, especially with guitarist Oliver Gannon, and talking about music. I remember one warm hearted argument in Victoria, after playing a show with Mitzi Gaynor, about a great trumpet solo we were hearing on a late 1930s Benny Goodman recording. He was saying Ziggy Elman and I was emphatic it was Harry James. I had so much respect for Fraser I just let it go, he was undoubtedly right. I also had the pleasure of hiring Fraser for my own big band a couple of times and he seemed to take great delight in playing the classic big band charts we were playing on those concerts.

Fraser MacPherson Scholarship Fund Board Seeks Volunteers

Since 1993, the Fraser MacPherson Scholarship Fund has been helping young musicians pursue their musical dreams. In the past few years, finding funding for the scholarship has become more and more challenging. Many board members who have served well for long periods of time are now retiring or are otherwise unable to continue as directors of the fund. In order for the important work of the Fund to continue, we need new board members and directors who have the interest and energy to raise funds and manage the activities of the organization. This is an open call to solicit support and interest from the Vancouver musical community. The qualifications we are looking for are a passion for jazz music and music education and a desire to volunteer your time to help young musicians. If you are interested in volunteering some of your time to support this worthwhile cause by getting involved with the Fraser MacPherson Scholarship Board please contact President Fred Stride: stride AT mail.ubc.ca before October 1st, 2012.

A Concert of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music

Duke Ellington 1965

Duke Ellington 1965

Here were are once again, having the great fortune to be able to perform some of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music. This will be our 3rd time performing this great music in an effort to support the First United Church and their mission to help the homeless on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. This concert has started to become a yearly highlight for me and I’m sure it is the same for all the other performers and organizers.

Duke Ellington described this music: “This music is the most important thing I’ve ever done, or am ever likely to do. This is personal, not career. Now I can say out loud to all the world what I have been saying to myself for years on my knees.” While the centre of this music is the spirituality, it never feels overtly so. Nor does the singing take over, with the jazz orchestra taking a strict accompaniment role. Every performer is integral to the music. This was always one of Duke’s striking compositional traits, everyone contributed to the sound of the music in a deep, meaningful way. The great big band in our concerts, which is made up of some of the finest jazz performers in Vancouver, which in addition to a superb accompaniment role, shines on two instrumental features and provides a generous amount of solo statements throughout the evening. This is a total jazz experience.

For our 2011 concert presentation we are adding, or rather changing around, a few songs for this third performance. New this year are Is God A Three Letter Word For Love and Ain’t Nobody Nowhere Nothin’ Without God, both from Duke’s Third Sacred Concert and Meditation from the Second Sacred Concert. Also on the program are Come Sunday, Praise God and Dance, The Lord’s Prayer, It’s Freedom, Don’t Get Down on Your Knees To Pray, David Danced Before the Lord, In The Beginning (which won the 1966 Grammy award for best jazz composition), Tell Me It’s The Truth, The Shepherd, Ninety-Nine Percent and The Biggest and Busiest Intersection, which is an all out jazz tour-de force for the band.

It was singer Dee Daniels who really got the ball rolling on performing this wonderful music. We had done a concert for Festival Vancouver in 2008 titled Duke, Dee and Me. Dee sang some Ellington songs at the concert, one of which was Tell Me It’s The Truth, from one of Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. In her little preamble before we performed the tune she put forth to the audience how great it would be to perform Duke’s Sacred Music in Vancouver. Someone in the audience contacted her and away we all went. A partnership with First United Church, supporting their mission helping the homeless on the Downtown Eastside, was the final result.

What superlatives can I write about Dee Daniels that hasn’t already been said? I guess all I really need to say is that working with Dee is always a great pleasure. Not only is she a great singer, but she is a very warm person who cares deeply about every single aspect of the concert. For more on Dee click here

Last year was the first time I had ever worked with Marcus Mosely. I had seen him perform a few times over the years and I do remember meeting him briefly at a concert that we were involved with up at Whistler a few years ago. Marcus, like Dee, is also very warm and professional. And man, can he sing! For more on Marcus click here

Tap dancer Alex Dugale joined us for the first time last year. Alex is originally from Seattle and is currently finishing his music degree in saxophone performance at the Eastman School of Music. Alex’s tap techinque, impeccable time and imagination are fantastic to behold. He plays jazz with his feet!

The 12 voice Sacred Music Gospel Choir is comprised of some top level professional singers and they are also great nice to work with. The first year we had the wonderful Phoenix Choir but their busy schedule did not allow them to continue for a second year. However, a few members of that choir, along with other interested and skillful singers, wanted to continue to be a part of the performance. The choir which is managed by Mike Angell and Rob Hollins is: Corlynn Hanney, Crystal Hicks, Erin Hollins, Gregory Ferrugia, Matthew Smith, Miles Ramsay, Mike Angell, Patti Fletcher, Phil Jenion, Rob Hollins, Sara Ramsay, Siri Olesen.

This year we are being joined by the gospel group The Sojourners. The Sojouners are Marcus Mosely, Will Sanders and Khari McClelland. For more on the group  click here

Finally, the orchestra, or rather big band, is made up of some of my favourite Vancouver musicians. Their passion for making music and their individual and collective skill sets are truly world class. I always feel I have the best seat in the house when I stand in front of them.

Orchestra Personnel:

Conductor/Director: Fred Stride
Saxophones: Jens Christiansen, Aaron Hardie, Bill Runge, Mike Braverman, Chad Makela
Trumpets: Derry Byrne, Kent Wallace, Tom Shorthouse, Chris Davis
Trombones: Dennis Esson, Rod Murray, Jeremy Berkman
Piano: Ross Taggart
Bass: Andre Lachance
Drums: Bernie Arai

Our host, as for the past 2 years, is CBC’s Rick Cluff. Rick, like everyone else connected with this production, is also great to work with. He is warm and knowledgeable and a genuine fan of both the music and performers. Since this concert does not take place in a formal concert hall, but in a large church, Dee and I felt that the experience needed a little “help.” Amplification, or microphones are used only on the solo singers, choir and instrumental soloists, while the band is heard acoustically. Staging is also brought in to elevate the performers above floor level, giving us a stage. Finally, the concert is filmed and shown on a giant screen behind the performers, greatly adding the concert experience.

I hope you can join us for this great evening of music and dance and The Sacred Music of Duke Ellington.

For more on First United Church and their great work click here

Purchase tickets through www.eventbrite.com click here

Event: Sacred Music of Duke Ellington

Date: Friday, November 18, 2011 at 8:00 PM (doors open at 7:00)

Location: St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church 1012 Nelson Street (Corner of Burrard & Nelson) Vancouver, British Columbia

The Sacred Music of Duke Ellington concert is a fundraising event for the work of First United Church, a place of refuge for people who are homeless on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. For more information, please visit www.firstunited.ca.

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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.

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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.

My March 2011 visit to Toronto, Kingston and Montreal - Part 1

It has been quite a while since I posted anything on this blog. I’m finding it much harder to commit to blogging than I thought (an age thing?).

Anyway, early last summer I received an email from a Greg Runions inquiring to see if I would be interested in coming to Kingston, Ontario to perform my music with his big band. Of course I said yes. Greg successfully found some funding, particularly through the SOCAN Foundation Composer Outreach Program and the Canada Council Project Grants for Small Ensembles, and I headed east on March 1, 2011.

Since I was heading east I thought I would contact a few colleagues in Ontario and Quebec and let them know I would be in the area. Maybe I could add some teaching or performing to my dates with Greg. I ended up receiving invites to give some jazz arranging and composition master classes at Humber College in Toronto, the University of Montreal and McGill University. Trying to coordinate these various sessions with my visit to Kingston took a little time, but I eventually had it all worked out.

After taking the redeye out of Vancouver on Tuesday, March 1, I landed in Toronto very early Wednesday morning (6:00am). Overall it was a nice flight - reading, watching tv, listening to my ipod (I never have much luck trying to sleep on planes). The only downside? You know the guy across the aisle is snoring loudly when you can hear it through your headphones. Yikes!

March 2, 2011 - Day 1 - Toronto

My first stop on this trip was at Humber College. Denny Christianson, the head of the program, picked me up at the airport and we headed over to the college. Before our session was to begin Denny took me on a tour of their new recording and midi facilities. All I can say is WOW!! I wish I had those resources when I was a student.

The head of the jazz arranging department, Gord Sheard, had me give a lecture/demonstration of my master class Resonant Voicings for the Big Band. To illustrate the lecture effectively Humber was kind enough to provide me with their very fine big band, who comfortably read through all the examples. I discussed the various types of voicings the students were hearing and why certain guidelines should be considered in order to create full sounding, or resonant, voicings, particularly for the brass and the tutti. The students watching could also follow along with a rather extensive handout. The lecture/demo was followed by a short question/answer session.

At the end of the session I met up with John MacLeod and we briefly talked about writing and the importance of basic technique to help any aspiring writer realize their own musical sounds. I have met a few younger jazz writers over the past few years who seem to think that traditional big band writing techniques are no longer relevant and that they could even be a hinderance to their own creativity. Well, technique never hurt Bartok or Bob Brookmeyer. Even Maria Schneider has a solid grounding in the traditional techniques, which is one reason her music sounds so good. Learning the basics does not mean that you will be locked into the tradition, anymore than learning to play the trumpet from a classical teacher will harm any jazz aspirations. It’s what you do with that technique coupled with your own curiosity and imagination. John also laid his new big band disc on me John MacLeod and His Rex Hotel Orchestra: Our First Set. What a great band! I have long known about John’s playing skills, but his writing was new to me. He is one great writer.

John MacLeod and His Rex Hotel Orchestra

John MacLeod and His Rex Hotel Orchestra

I followed up the Humber session with a really nice visit with my old friend Paul Read, an excellent composer and arranger (as well as saxophone and piano). By the way, you should pick up Paul’s great new recording - Paul Read Orchestra: Arc-En-Ciel (Addo Jazz Recordings). Great writing and playing throughout.

PRO - Paul Read Orchestra

PRO - Paul Read Orchestra

After my visit with Paul I took the train up to Kingston, which was not an unpleasant trip, arriving around 8:30pm. By now I was exhausted - I hadn’t slept since the night before I left Vancouver. Greg Runions picked me up at the station and after a quick bite to eat I headed to my hotel room for a good nights sleep.

Inspired!

Have you ever gone to a concert knowing you will hear some good music, but then when its over you feel like that you have just had one of the best listening experiences ever? Well, that was my experience last Sunday evening at The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts. On the first half of the double bill was drummer Terry Clarke’s trio with Don Thompson (bass) and Phil Dwyer (tenor sax). Both Don and Phil moved over to the piano on occasion, but this was essentially a chord less trio. Terry has long been one of my favourite drummers and I looked forward to hearing his group.

They did not disappoint. Their playing was excellent throughout the set, particularly the bass-less ballad, where Don had moved over to the piano. They ended their portion of the program with an exciting performance of Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite. My only quibble was the sound man had added a little much “high end” on the cymbals which tended to detract at times.

After an intermission, which is never much fun in the cramped lobby of the Centre, a new Steinway piano and Chick Corea entered. I’ve seen Corea perform several times over the years, but always with a band of some sort. This time he was on his own.

I had never heard, or at least I don’t remember hearing him, address the audience. He was very casual and funny, sometimes referring to his performance as personal practice time. Well, if that is what it is like to hear him practice…

I could run through all the titles, but I don’t know if that is really necessary. What hit me most was the range of expressiveness he has. His impeccable time and rhythmic sense, his beautiful touch and melodic inventiveness and his impressive harmonic vocabulary.

Besides playing some of his own music, including some wonderful improvisations on some of his Children’s Songs, Chick also played tunes by Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Bill Evans and Alexander Scriabin. Actually I feel a little uncomfortable referring to Scriabin’s piano work as a tune. Anyway, I guess we tend to forget that players, like Corea, who write and play their own music, can also play the classics. But in the case of these standards he did not play straight up versions following the form. In each case he deconstructed the original structurally, melodically and harmonically, breathing some great new life in to them. Of course I never mind hearing yet another version of ‘Round Midnight, or any of the other tunes he played. Corea’s solo piano versions of these very familiar tunes were something else.

At the end of his performance I wanted to run home and practice. I was truly inspired. Sunday, June 27, 2010, will go down in my book as one of those great, memorable concerts I have attended over the years.

Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass

On the heels of my Rob McConnell post here are Rob and The Boss Brass in California in 1981.

Hello everyone!

Well here we are - finally! It has been a long time coming, but I’m beginning to feel a part of this century.

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