Jazz for Christmas, featuring the Winnipeg version of the Bob Watts Trio (Bob Watts, drums; Bert Johnson, piano; Bob ‘Moose’ Jackson, bass) is different than most seasonal CD’s in that the group has ignored the usual candidates (Let It Snow, The Christmas Song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, etc.) in favour of nine traditional carols.
In their press release they claim this is the only jazz CD out there with such a repertoire.
Whether that’s true or not, they’ve made these tunes – everything from God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen to What Child Is This – swing.
The familiar melodies are there, beautifully rendered, but what makes the recording soar is the superb improvisational work of Bert Johnson, a young Winnipeg pianist who completed his Masters in Music (jazz piano) in 2009 at the University of Manitoba and now teaches at the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Art.
The good news is you don’t have to travel to the frozen prairie to catch this material live. In fact you can hear it this Sunday, December 4 (7:30 pm) at St. Phillips Anglican Church in Oak Bay, where Watts, with the Victoria version of his group, has been offering monthly jazz vespers concerts for over a year.
Tom Vickery takes the piano seat this week and is sure to serve up his own tasteful renderings of these charts backed by the solid work of Watts on drums and Ross MacDonald on bass.
I can’t think of a better way to ease into the Christmas season. And you should be able to snag the CD at the concert as well to carry you right through December.
I want to add a few thoughts on why a blog devoted to the Vancouver Island and Coastal BC jazz scene would run a piece on a vocalist from New York performing in a Vancouver night club (see No Club Is An Island).
Forty or fifty years ago, largely through the work of performers like Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and Stan Getz, jazz was comfortably in the mainstream. Turn on a popular AM radio station and you would hear Take Five, It’s a Raggy Waltz, Desifinado or The Girl from Ipanema. Tune into a variety TV show and you would see Count Basie or Nat Cole or any number of jazz greats performing. They even had their own TV shows and specials.
We all know that has changed and that jazz is almost a dirty word in the mainstream media. For evidence, just count how often you see a jazz album review in our self-styled national newspaper.
It’s also a poorly defined word. Ask the average guy on the street what jazz is and he’ll probably tell you it’s weird music with ten-minute long drum solos and no melody.
Guitarist Martin Taylor doesn’t even tell people he plays jazz anymore. When asked by a stranger, he’ll say he likes to play songs from the American songbook and Brazilian tunes. He’s found that folks will then listen and discover they really like what he does – which is play jazz.
We need to find other ways to break down the barriers. One way is for composers to write music that bridges musical genres. Another is to open up performance venues and programs.
As saxophonist Monik Nordine pointed out in a recent interview on this site, jazz has always welcomed and integrated other forms of music into its fold.
And so when a new artist comes along who can deliver a believable version of a jazz standard and write original music that connects with the worlds of hip hop and soul, that to me is a good thing even if he does wear a sideways baseball cap and sneakers when he performs.
And when a club devoted to dance and DJ music is willing to take a risk and bring in a jazz musician, that’s also a good and should be supported.
We’re making progress. Here on the Island we’ve got jazz happening in churches, art galleries, and restaurants. But there’s lots more we can do to bring in new audiences and break down barriers.
Originally from Vancouver, Cole produces ultra-short documentaries featuring players like Montreal trumpeter Kevin Dean (you may recall he was here in Victoria in May with PJ Perry), saxophonist Al McLean, and guitarist Mike Rud (who will be very familiar to Vancouver and Victoria audiences of the past).
Cole’s latest film captures the musical and emotional bond between Kevin Dean and his late father Richard through Dean’s telling of the story of Pops, a jazz ballad he composed for his dad shortly before he died.
Against the backdrop of a lovely rendering of the song in the serene setting of a Montreal church, Dean talks about growing up in a musical family and being inspired by his farmer father who, as a musician (sax and bass), could really “play pretty.”
Although brief, the film takes us right to the heart of their relationship and reveals the deep emotion that often inspires musical creation.
While you are at it, you might want to check out Cole’s other films. The ones I’ve seen are superb. In fact, watching this material has got me thinking – maybe there’s a filmmaker on Vancouver Island who might want to capture some of our own jazz stories?
And what a recording it is. Released on October 25, Changing Seasons is a lyrical 35-minute jazz-suite-cum-violin-concerto performed by a 17-piece superstar big band, a 20-piece string section, violin virtuoso Mark Fewer and trumpet great Ingrid Jensen all blowing, bowing, and swinging their way through 1000 bars of classical, jazz, and show music cooked up by the great Phil Dwyer and his fertile musical imagination.
Modelled in part on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, it’s a refreshing breeze bringing the warmth of spring and the promise of summer to a sometimes frozen music world.
For some time now I’ve been thinking about the jazz and classical communities within that world and their apparent inability to get together in any meaningful way – at least on this continent.
My wife and I were in Europe in September and attended a concert at Bimhuis, the acclaimed center for improvised music in Amsterdam. There we saw a 30-piece big band of jazz and classical players (with a vocalist and tap dancer to boot) thrilling the audience with startlingly original compositions that mixed classical, jazz and experimental music as naturally as fresh water blends with salt in Holland’s seaside estuaries.
Changing Seasons isn’t quite that adventuresome, but it does challenge the notion that jazz is jazz and classical classical and never the twain shall meet. It also throws down the gauntlet to the institutions that keep music boxed up.
I’m reminded of my attempt two years ago to convince a local symphony to take a risk and produce Christine Jensen’s amazing Treelines jazz suite, a tribute to her Vancouver Island roots inspired in part by Emily Carr’s paintings (imagine the music together with the projected paintings), but no such luck. I didn’t even get the courtesy of a reply to my letter.
That symphony and others like it across the country will occasionally stick one toe out on a limb and produce a Holly Cole or Michael Kaeshammer concert but sadly that’s about as daring as they’ll get.
And our jazz societies that control most of the meagre funding that goes to improvised music in this country generally stick with the same formula of big-name (often non-jazz) acts filling the auditorium seats while the jazz groups are sequestered in the far corners of the city.
In the meantime our gifted Canadian jazz composers have to move mountains all by themselves just to get their work performed and recorded and then hope that somebody somewhere might eventually have the vision to present it to a larger audience. Which almost never happens, except, God bless them, now and then on CBC radio.
Enough ranting. We can do something about it. Do yourself a favour and download or order Changing Seasons. You won’t regret it. And as the winter winds start blowing, consider writing letters to a few music directors. If they get enough maybe they too will understand that they must believe in spring.
Note: Ottawa Citizen reporter Peter Hum has posted on his superb jazz blog a five-part interview with Phil Dwyer. Dwyer talks about the new album, his childhood fascination with jazz, hanging in NYC in the 80s, his career, his personal struggles, and his advice to aspiring players. It’s a deeply personal and moving interview. Highly recommended.
And blessing of blessings, Phil Dwyer performs with Ken Lister on Sunday, November 20, 7pm, at a Church of the Advent jazz vespers gig in Colwood.