Jill Townsend Big Band Releases Legacy: The Music of Ross Taggart: Island Jazz Exclusive Interview with Jill Townsend
About eighteen months ago Cory Weeds of Cellar Live Records in Vancouver proposed to Jill Townsend that her big band record an album of Ross Taggart originals to honour Ross who was only forty-five when he passed away on January 9, 2013.
The album was funded as a Kickstarter project and was launched June 30 at two concerts in Vancouver.
Many Islanders helped fund the project because Ross Taggart, who was born and raised in Victoria, was beloved on both sides of the water.
The album, which features some of the west coast’s greatest jazz musicians, can be purchased now at Cellar Live.
I recently interviewed Jill about the project by email. Here’s what she had to say.
IJ: Eighteen months after it began, your Ross Taggart project is finally done and the CD’s are on their way to project donors. How are you feeling now that it’s complete?
JT: Exhilarated, exhausted, satisfied, grateful to have been part of this project, and happy that it’s completed!
IJ: How did the launch in Vancouver go?
JT: The audiences for both shows were very receptive, and the band played beautifully. It was an emotional evening for sure, but here we were, celebrating Ross and his music, and celebrating the final result of this project.
IJ: How do you feel about the recorded results? Any favourite cuts?
JT: I’m very happy with the recording.Thanks to everyone in the band, and of course Chris Gestrin deserves special mention here; he did a fantastic job of recording, editing, mixing and mastering the CD. Each tune has a story of course- Legacy is one of my favourites, and TV Lunch was a tune I thought would work well for big band. Light at the End of the Tunnel is a gorgeous arrangement by Bill Coon, and is one of the highlights for sure. Bill Runge also contributed a lovely chart of Open Book.
IJ: You knew Ross Taggart’s music before, but what discoveries did you and Bill [Coon] make as you dug into the tunes and began arranging them for big band?
JT: Well, the fact that there were so many compositions to choose from to begin with! It was a somewhat difficult process at first to go through the boxes of music, but as we played through his compositions, we chose the tunes relatively quickly that we each wanted to arrange. Ross’ compositions’ are imaginative, colourful, joyous, and poignant. He wrote so many tunes for friends, or an event that took place, or something personal to him. Every note counts in Ross’ music.
IJ: How did your arrangements evolve as you took the charts to the band and started working with them?
JT: My goal for arranging is to have the chart finished and completed to my own liking before bringing it to the band. I’m not a fan of making too many changes afterwards. However, the benefit of rehearsal allows for a few quick fixes or changes. With any large ensemble, the timeline is always tight between rehearsal and performance!
IJ: Tell us about the recording process. How many days, how many takes, etc.? Challenges? Crazy moments? Inspirational moments?
JT: It was just after Christmas when we recorded, and took place over two and a half days, so really only three sessions plus a little extra time. That was challenging in itself, as it’s a busy time for most musicians. We had a lot of music to record in a short amount of time, so the sessions were very focused.Yes, there were some crazy moments for sure, but you know, that’s all part of the process when you have 17 or 18 musicians & personalities in one room!
IJ: You and Cory Weeds decided to go with donor funding through Kickstarter. Having been through it now, how do you feel about that approach to album funding? Do you recommend it?
JT: Absolutely! We had overwhelming response to this project, and being able to donate online made the process easier for contributors near and far, and across the globe. Also, contributors received project updates, so they were involved in the process as each stage of the project unfolded.Thank you to Cory Weeds, and to all of our contributors!
IJ: In the absence of decent government funding for independent jazz projects in this country do you think this is the way of future?
JT: Well, it’s one way for sure, and was a positive experience for us. Grant funding is still available, and as always, musicians have to be resourceful in finding various ways to present their music.
IJ: Any chance of getting the band over to Victoria for a performance of Ross’ music?
JT: Of course, I’d love to bring the whole band over to Victoria! At this point, Bill and I are planning to come over in early 2016 and perform some of the charts with Monik Nordine and the Monday Night Jazz Orchestra.
IJ: What’s next for Jill Townsend?
JT: We’re performing with Dr Lonnie Smith (B3 organ) in December, so I’m excited about arranging some new charts for that project.Planning to record another CD of original music by (guitarist/composer) Bill Coon and myself in the not-too-distant future, and there are a few other things simmering..which will be announced closer to the time. Check out jilltownsend.ca for future performances with the band.
I haven’t reviewed albums for some time on this site but one crossed my desk recently that I feel seasonally inspired to write about.
It’s a wonderful new Christmas album by Victoria’s own Bob Watts Trio recorded in the sanctuary of St. Philip Anglican Church in Oak Bay and featuring the piano work of the sublime and fiery Pablo Cardenas.
Many of you will know that drummer Watts moved to Victoria a few years ago from Winnipeg (although he still spends a lot of time there for business and music) and established a monthly jazz vespers series at St. Philip. During his tenure at the church he’s worked with the likes of Karl Roessingh, Joey Smith, Rob Cheramy, Tony Genge, Bruce Meikle and Tom Vickery.
Watts most often appears with Cardenas and bassist Ross Macdonald in a trio and indeed they are the personnel on Jazz for Christmas 2.
Before you say, ‘do we really need another jazz Christmas album?’ you should know there’s something unique about this one and its companion Jazz for Christmas 1, recorded in Winnipeg in 2010. According to Watts, these are the only two jazz albums around devoted strictly to interpreting Christmas carols.
That’s right, all the other jazz seasonal albums – there must be thousands of them – offer the odd carol but mostly feature arrangements of popular Christmas songs like that old Mel Tormé classic – you know the one I mean.
This new album includes a deeply blue and soulful Silent Night, a lively jazz waltz version of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and a fast-swinging Good Christian People Rejoice which burns along at 220 bpm – a tempo which apparently left Watts exclaiming an unprintable and unreleasable (but humorously appropriate) “Holy s–” when they made it through what turned out to be a gem of a first take.
You’ll want this one on top of your Christmas CD stack. The tunes may be familiar but the arrangements are fresh, original, and deeply swinging.
Whitaker, supported by an A-list of west coast players, delivers the real thing with her signature dark, husky voice that seems made for jazz.
And while that voice thins now and then under the load of these demanding tunes and arrangements, Whitaker makes up for any tonal challenges with sensitive phrasing that respects the lyrics and knows when there should be sound and and when there should be silence.
Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry is a fine example with the gorgeous interplay between her muted trumpet voice and Dwyer’s sweet, supple sax. You’ll also hear it in My Foolish Heart as she plays off rich horn lines and Dwyer’s spare piano work.
Fact is, all the songs on this album are delivered with style, not the least of which are the Stevie Wonder tunes Overjoyed and Creepin’, well-chosen contemporary contrasts to the standards that are at the core of the album.
Speaking of Phil Dwyer, is there a better musical mind anywhere in the country? He, along with the other masterful players he’s recruited, including Brad Turner on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ian McDougall on trombone and Ken Lister on bass, has given Whitaker an expansive musical sandbox in which to play.
Just listen to the percussive fun and excitement on the opening The Song is You and you’ll know you’re in for a treat. This album is a winner vocally and instrumentally.
Note: Sadly the CD arrived too late for me to review it in time for Whitaker’s Victoria show this past weekend, but you can catch her tonight (Wednesday) at The Cellar in Vancouver at 8 pm. And the album is now available on disk or digital download through Whitaker’s website. It would make a great Christmas gift.
There were times last night when I thought the Wayne Shorter Quartet, triggered by Brian Blade on drums, would levitate right through the roof of the Royal and soar into the evening sky.
Blade was that astonishing and they were that good.
Before I say more, a caveat: they weren’t for everybody. The guy beside me, who left early with his partner, held his head sometimes as if in pain.
The dude who thought he was at a rock concert and shouted, “Play Birdland!” was probably disappointed.
One avid jazz fan I know spent the concert making up funny show titles to cope. The one she shared with me was brilliant: “What Fresh Hell Is This?”
But I think it’s safe to say that most of the audience, once they abandoned all expectations of conventional harmonic structure and melody, were dumbstruck. Evidence: the spontaneous standing ovation and shouts for more that erupted at the end of the 90-minute set.
(Note: this was not one of those obligatory standing O’s, where a few people get up, and others, self-consciously thinking they should join in, rise slowly from their seats. This was instant, explosive, and sustained enough to bring the group back on stage for an encore after a long delay).
I confess, I was one of the shouters.
What triggered my response?
It was the ability of these great musicians to create in the moment with pure abandon.
To play as if the pages of their charts were filled with questions.
To play as if they were blank.
To experiment and stumble only to rise on a wave of exalted improvisation.
To perform as if they were discovering music for the first time.
To know where they were going but not know.
To play with deep beauty.
To dare to play with chaos.
To be so fully attuned to each other that at times they were one musician not four.
To spin off into four separate worlds and then awake to each other and come together once again.
To play with humour.
To be deeply serious.
To answer the Birdland dude with the most hesitant and unpracticed of beginnings. (I love it that Shorter felt free enough to make the warming up and tuning of his sax part of the music).
To go crazy (witness Blade leaping off his stool and laughing as he drummed like a madman while John Patitucci’s right hand became a blurr on his upright bass).
To be still and silent and play little or nothing at all.
To love what they were doing so much that it didn’t matter what they were doing.
To play until they could play no more.
Watching these guys was like watching a painting come to life:
Danilo Perez on the grand piano stage right peering at the charts and then looking at the others intently as he sent single notes or extended chords their way and waited for a reaction.
Shorter, standing casually beside the piano in his Indian-style kurta, playing one phrase on his soprano sax and then, enough said, putting it down.
Patitucci swaying and twisting with his bass in the wind of Blade’s drumming.
Blade, stage left, exploding into the most impossible of drum riffs and then settling quietly into the tinkling of a few bells.
This was art, not entertainment.
In its own way the Wayne Shorter Quartet did rise into the night sky.
For those who missed it, here’s a taste from a concert in Vienna:
Jazz fans could be excused for thinking they died and went to heaven last night at Alix Goolden Hall.
Two groups took us there in totally different ways.
First up was Montreal’s DBLT, performing a tribute to Bill Evans of such range and beauty that to describe it seems ridiculous. How do you explain perfection?
Volumes could be devoted to the impossible bass playing of Michel Donato, the sublime piano work of Francois Bourassa, the transformative tenor saxophone of Frank Lozano, and the dynamic drumming of Pierre Tanguay.
A few words come to mind – space, light and fire – but the truth is you had to be there, and if you weren’t, the best you can do is sample their musicianship through this clip which will give you a small taste of the sonic banquet they gave us:
Phil Dwyer Sextet featuring Laila Biali
Next up was Vancouver Island’s own Phil Dwyer and his breathtaking compositional tribute to classic Canadian composers like Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, and Joni Mitchell.
On the magical Canadian mystery tour with Dwyer were Jodi Proznick on bass, Rob Piltch on guitar, Vince Mai on trumpet and Davide Direnzo on drums, as well as special guest Laila Biali who, as Sting has recognized, plays piano like a demon and has a voice from the gods.
In an Ottawa Citizen review of this show, Peter Hum suggested that in a fair world Dwyer and Biali would be as famous as the musicians behind the popular songs they were performing.
He’s right, particularly when we’re talking about Dwyer, who last night demonstrated that he is one of our great Canadian composers, albeit in a vein that the majority of music fans will likely never approach or recognize.
Those looking for the familiar melodies and simple chords of the original tunes would be disappointed since Dwyer transformed the songs – among them Robbie Robertson’s Down By the Lazy River, Gordon Lightfoot’s Beautiful and Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds – into sonic landscapes of such beauty and chaos that it was like hearing The Group of Seven transfigured through the musical imaginations of Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman.
Crazy, I know, but that’s what heaven sounded like.
Here are some samples, albeit with a septet and slightly different personnel. Make sure you listen to Lightfoot’s Beautiful: Phil Dwyer