• Ross Taggart (1967-2013)

     

    This was originally posted February 1, 2013

     

    It is always sad when you lose someone important in your life. Over the years the Vancouver jazz community has lost many great players who I admired for both their musicianship and character - Fraser MacPherson, Stew Barnett, Dave Robbins, Chris Nelson, Bob MacDonald, Lew Hilton, Bill Trussell. These were all musicians I worked with and I treasure my musical and personal experiences with them all. The latest to leave us was the multi-talented tenor saxophonist and pianist Ross Taggart.
     

    I first met Ross in September of 1986. He had just moved over to Vancouver from Victoria and was eagerly searching out opportunities to play. I had never heard of Ross but he showed up at Capilano College (now Capilano University) to audition for the big band I was directing at the time. Ross played some very fine tenor saxophone for me, he read well and soloed up a storm. I was impressed with what I heard. At the end of the audition I would always ask saxophone players what else they played, meaning do you play flute, clarinet or even oboe? Ross didn’t hesitate and said, “I also play piano.” A little surprised I said, “OK, why don’t you play something for me?” I don’t remember what he played, but I do remember enjoying what I heard. He joined the band that fall as the piano player and stayed for the entire year. I guess what struck me then, and something that stayed with him throughout his career, was his amazing ability to combine a deep sense of the jazz tradition (he really knew the vocabulary) with a modern adventurousness.


    I continued to hear Ross perform in a great number of musical settings for the remainder of the 1980s. Ross then headed off to New York for a little while in the early 1990s and arrived back in town sometime in 1993. In the meantime I had personally been a little quiet on the local jazz scene, having disbanded my big band, The West Coast Jazz Orchestra, in early 1987. Coincidentally, I started up again around the same time Ross returned to Vancouver. I soon asked him to be the piano player and he remained in that chair until last fall.


    Ross’ piano work with the band was always imaginative and often surprising. His very close friend saxophonist Campbell Ryga spoke warmly of Ross in a CBC radio interview and stated that Ross always played with great honesty. I would agree 100% with that assessment. Ross seemed incapable of playing a single insincere note. He was always totally absorbed in the  sound and purpose of the music. His playing was never self-absorbed.


    In 1999 I transcribed Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige, which took me about 5 months, for a fall concert. In the premiere performance of Duke’s epic 50 minute score, at Carnegie Hall in 1943, Duke improvised cadenzas at several points to help tie various sections together. I had been talking to Ross about the project and mentioned these piano cadenzas. Ross immediately volunteered to learn them himself, which was typical of his generous spirit. When we had our first rehearsal Ross played those cadenzas, note for note, like they were his own. In successive rehearsals the cadenzas began to evolve into something more personal, something more “Ross.” But what I found fascinating was, that no matter what new ideas he would bring to those cadenzas, Ross never lost sight of Ellington, both musically and pianistically.

     

    In June of 2006 I recorded the CD The Fred Stride Jazz Orchestra: Forward Motion (Cellar Live). The CD was a representation of some of the music I had written for my band in the previous 4 or 5 years. The pieces don’t contain much in the way of singable melodies or even familiar II-V-I chord progressions. On top of that most of the rhythm section parts were fully notated, with very few chord symbols in sight. Ross, like the others in the rhythm section, did not take these notated parts as some sort of bible. They often played most of what I had written but added their own touches and ideas. For me, this is one of the great things about writing for a jazz orchestra, the addition of individual creativity. I find it fascinating to see and hear what good and sensitive rhythm sections might change and bring to my music.


    Ross is all over that recording, comping through everything with an improvisatory daring. In concert settings I would often marvel at what he was playing and think that what I was hearing should not work. But Ross’ extraordinary musical sense of line and harmony was so strong and logical that everything he played worked beautifully. He was able to shape the complicated things I often wrote on the page into something greater and more meaningful. Hearing his playing I would often think - “Why didn’t I do that!” During the recording of the piece Floatation Device Ross mentioned he was having a problem with his back and he asked if would be OK if he didn’t play the constantly repeating B flats that go on for several minutes. I said, “Sure. Once the trombones enter with their B flats you can stop”. Because of the studio setup I couldn’t clearly hear Ross so I was unaware of what he ended up doing. I assumed he stayed out, but when Torben Oxbol and I went to mix, a month or so later, I was amazed at what Ross had come up with. Ross was playing random B flats all through the opening section which created a wonderful pointillistic contrast to the rest of the band. Again Ross’ musical sincerity would not let him just step back and rest because his back was giving him trouble, he contributed a startling idea that made a major contribution to the performance.


    On the same recording Ross played a solo on Oddly Enough. Listening to the playback after a final take Ross expressed he was not happy with his solo, he wanted to do another take. I however was thrilled with what he played - the lines, the rhythmic bounce and the very daring out-of-key funny quote near the end. For me this solo sums up a lot of Ross Taggart the musician and the person. We can hear his sense of musical tradition, his impeccable time and rhythmic sense, his vivid and creative imagination and, for those of us that spent anytime around Ross, his great sense of humour.


    For the past 4 years the Fred Stride Jazz Orchestra has been performing my transcriptions and arrangements of music from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. Heading into our third performance in November 2011 Ross called me to ask if I would possibly consider adding Duke’s solo piano piece Meditation. I hesitated, as the one recorded performance I owned was a little too long for the existing program, but I didn’t dismiss his offer. Ross soon found a shorter version (Ross was a real jazz scholar and avid collector of all things jazz) and this version fit comfortably into the program. I never asked Ross to play the piece in any of the rehearsals, I knew he would have it down. I finally heard him play it for the first time in the concert. The placement of Meditation half way through the second half of the program, along with his sensitive playing, created a beautiful moment, moving everything down to a quiet, reflective few minutes before we built up again for the rousing conclusion of Praise God and Dance. Ross’ two and a half minute solo was sheer musical poetry.


    Ross was booked to play in our November 2012 Duke Ellington Sacred Music concert in his hometown of Victoria. A couple of months prior Ross called to say he had been booked to play and record with jazz great “Tootie” Heath. Unfortunately, the recording session was scheduled for the morning of our Victoria show. I told Ross, that although I would miss him, it was fine for him to sub out and take advantage of this great opportunity. Ross, typically, would have none of that, he wanted to do both and he really wanted to play the Ellington music again. So he went away trying to figure out how he might do both. He called back a couple of weeks later to say the recording session was going to be done quickly and when it was over he would take a cab to the downtown heliport and fly to Victoria, and he might be about a half hour late for our afternoon rehearsal. I knew he had his part down so I said OK. Around the beginning of October Ross called again to talk about his plans for doing both gigs. He also told me he wasn’t feeling great, but he was still determined to play both gigs. I do know that Ross loved Ellington very deeply and for him to have another chance to play such great music was something he was not about let pass. We ended up having a long conversation, talking about all manner of things both personal and musical. It was a memorable conversation and it was the last time we ever talked. The day before I flew to Winnipeg for some concerts in mid-October I received word that Ross was in hospital. When I returned I was told that Ross would not be able to play any gigs in the near future. With quite a bit of effort I found a nice substitute, one of Ross’ students. At the concert in Victoria, when we got to the spot in the second half of the program for Meditation, I stopped the concert and announced to the audience that a dear friend of everyone performing in the show was not well and that we are dedicating the next piece to Ross Taggart. I then sat at the piano, with trembling hands, going over my feelings for Ross and thinking what a performance legacy he had placed in front of me. I did my best, but it was tough.


    In a big city like Vancouver there are many great jazz piano players, but Ross was my hands down favourite. I will miss him. While Ross’ passing has put the Vancouver jazz community into a sad state, I know Ross would rather us go play some music than dwell too long on his passing.


    RIP Ross Taggart


  • Thank You Rob McConnell

    An article from my old blog. Sunday, June 13th, 2010
     

    Thank You Rob!

    I have been very lax about getting off my butt and posting something to my blog. There always seemed to be something else to do, particularly writing music. Well, the recent passing of Rob McConnell has finally caused me to write something.
    Thinking about Rob’s passing and listening to his music again has brought a few things to mind.


    The day after I heard of Rob’s passing I hauled out my large collection of Boss Brass recordings and spent the entire day listening once again to some of my all time favourite big band arrangements - Just Friends, Body and Soul, Street of Dreams, Out of Nowhere, Portrait of Jennie, My Bells, Easy To Love, Autumn In New York, You Took Advantage of Me, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, A Time For Love, Take The “A” Train, Blue Hodge, Louisiana. In fact, I’m having a difficult time stopping this list. They are all great. Let’s just say that, much like one of my other favourites, Bill Holman, Rob never wrote anything less than a great chart.


    I cannot remember when I first heard the Boss Brass. I could have been, and probably was, one the early brass ensemble pop LPs Rob recorded for the CTL label. But, it could also have been a Jazz Radio Canada program. Jazz Radio Canada, a CBC program that ran once a week nation wide in the 1970s, featured Canadian jazz groups in either live or studio sessions. I was addicted to the weekly program. Coincidentally, this was also the program on which I got my first professional writing gig, contributing arrangements for a Bob Hales big band program in 1976.


    Listening to the weekly broadcast, it seemed there was an abundance of great big bands in the Canada, at least it seemed that way to me. From Vancouver we heard Bob Hales and occasionally Doug Parker, Edmonton had Tommy Banks. Other names escape me for the moment but I would be sure to have heard bands from Calgary and Winnipeg. From Quebec we heard Vic Vogel. There were groups from the Atlantic provinces and from the Toronto area we heard the big bands of Phil Nimmons and Rob McConnell. This program created a strong sense of Canadian jazz. It made us all aware that there were other players and writers out there creating some great music.


    Of all of those bands, the one that struck me the most was the Boss Brass. I was probably 19 or 20 years old and, unlike my peers, I had grown up listening to the old big bands - Harry James, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman (yeah I know, I was a little weird). So the great sense of swing and the strong contemporary sound of the Boss Brass really grabbed me. I was a major fan from the first note I heard.


    For starters, I was struck by the sound of Rob’s band. The virtuosity of the ensemble work, led by the stellar trumpeter Arnie Chycoski. Of course I simply loved the beautiful flugel horn playing of Guido Basso, who is blessed with a singular sound and style that is immediately recognizable (by me singling out 2 trumpet players you can probably guess my instrument of choice). No less wonderful were the saxes, playing those seemingly impossible solis, the beautiful trombone section led by Ian McDougall and the great rhythm section, particularly drummer Terry Clark.


    I remember catching the Boss Brass on a CBC television special, probably in the mid 1970s, in which they played things like Mr. Tricky Nervous and Come Back To Jesus, Or I’ll Kill You which were never committed to disc. We also heard A Time For Love and That’s Right on the program (to be honest I only remember these exact titles because I recorded the program on cassette).


    While all of Rob’s recordings are great, there are five Boss Brass recordings that stand out to me:


    The Best Damn Band In The Land was my favourite easy listening Boss Brass CTL recording, and my first BB disc. Of all Rob’s early CTL LPs this was the jazziest, featuring a wonderful, but short, chart on Louisiana and an exquisite Santa Claus Blues.


    The Jazz Album. The first Boss Brass jazz LP was an lp I eagerly anticipated and it didn’t disappoint. Great charts and playing throughout, but Rob’s arrangement of Body and Soul was a standout. This arrangement has it all - a great reharmonization of the original tune, a sax soli using rich 5 part writing, great ensemble lines and a powerful shout. While I think it’s a highlight of the recording I understand, from several sources, that Rob didn’t care too much for this chart. Portrait of Jenny is another great arrangement and features wall to wall Guido Basso.


    Big Band Jazz. What’s not to like about this 2 disc recording? This was a limited direct to disc LP set (mine is #01204). While there are a couple of very minor performance glitches, they take nothing away from this great set. I played this disc over and over and over and over and over and… Every arrangement is a gem. I would class this as one of the best big band recordings of all time. The opening track of Just Friends with the unbelievably together stop time tutti, the tricky trombone line coupled with the bass, the solos and the big, powerful shout. Then there is Street of Dreams, Dirty Man, A Tribute to Art Fern, and Porgy and Bess Suite. Writing about the quality of all the arrangements, and the fantastic playing on this recording, could easily take up multiple blogs.


    Present Perfect. First of all, the sound of this lp was fantastic. Rob always had first class engineers and the recordings were always sonic delights. You Took Advantage of Me and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes are real high points on another album full of highlights.


    The El Mocambo: Live In Digital. This was the first time I saw the band in person and provided a real “ear opening” experience. With a friend, the late Pete Coulman, I went to hear the band at the El Mocambo club in Toronto. They played there for about 10 days and we were there almost every night. The virtuosity of the ensemble work was as stunning live as it was on disc. The dynamic range, even when I considered my previous experiences listening to Count Basie and Stan Kenton live, was breathtaking. Without microphones I could still hear every woodwind part. The entire band moved and breathed as one single entity.


    All the subsequent discs, including those by the tenet, are equally wonderful, but the ones mentioned here are some of the first recordings I acquired so they have a strong place in my own musical identity.


    Despite the great tradition of big band music, Rob McConnell managed to develop a big band style and sound that was all his own. Even his earliest recorded arrangement, that I am aware of, for Maynard Ferguson of Come Rain or Come Shine has some of those now classic McConnellisms - beautiful harmonization, great lines, great voicings, a great dynamic range and a superb sense of structure. Rob never wrote simple arrangements, consisting of a melody chorus followed by a long solo section with a few simple backgrounds and a return to the melody. His charts always had something substantial for the ensemble. Rob would often follow his opening melody chorus with some new, often virtuosic, ensemble writing. His charts would often have multiple climaxes. I found the same qualities in his own solo work, within his big band or small groups. Even the wonderful duet recording with Ed Bickert, Mutual Street, is loaded with great musical drama.


    Certainly Rob, like all of us that write for big bands, borrowed and learned from the masters. However, I have always been impressed by someone that can create something singular, an identifiable sound, while still acknowledging the past. Rob, like Bill Holman and Bob Brookmeyer, fits this category. However, while Holman and Brookmeyer seem to want to reach beyond their past accomplishments, Rob seemed content to remain within his sense of the tradition. This does not mean that any one of these three writers is better artistically than the other. But rather there is, in my mind anyway, a place for all of them. Good music is good music.


    If one had to single out one distinctive feature of Rob’s writing it would probably be his sense of harmony. His harmonic work really reminds me so much of pianist Bill Evans, always full of beautiful tension and release. He also maximizes these harmonic colours by using rich, full ensemble voicings along with a great sense of orchestral colour, especially with the additional french horns and woodwinds.


    It’s not only Rob’s manipulation of harmony that allows him to stand out, he also had an equally deft hand with melody. And, although not known as a composer as much as an arranger, Rob’s own tunes that are scattered throughout his recordings, were always a highlight. Even his larger scale big band jazz originals were always tuneful. Check out the beautiful middle section of That’s Right.


    Finally, on top of all of Rob’s qualities as an arranger, composer and player, there was always Rob’s sense of humour, which would often come out of nowhere in the music. A favourite moment is the return of the melody in Louisiana where he changes key after the first bar.


    As much as I love the sound of any good big band, it’s the writing that always seems to draw me back repeatedly, to listen over and over. To this day, after more than 40 years, I can still hear the sounds of those early Boss Brass recordings vividly in my mind and I know those sounds have had a very big effect on the big band music I create for myself. I have been told I am a harmonically oriented writer, who loves to write virtuosic ensemble passages. Well, I’ve always known where that came from. Now you do.


    I know I will go on for the rest of my life enjoying the sounds of Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass.


    Thank you Rob!

     

     

     

     



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