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.
Nordine, who hails from Salt Spring and teaches at VIU in Nanaimo, recently moved to Victoria, providing an opportunity for Island Jazz to sit down and ask a few questions about Departure and its musical direction.
IJ: How did Departure get started?
MN: Departure started out as a writing project when I first showed up in Nanaimo. I still have the first recording I made with James McRae and Phill Albert. We each wrote a few tunes and jammed them at James’ place, then recorded with Rick Salt in Nanaimo. Each of us had unique offerings, and from the original sessions my tune “Instep” remains and also Phill’s tune “Sireusly Mean”. “Instep” later morphed into a different kind of tune when Sherry Clayton (drummer) and I used it as a vehicle for improv. She was working out a funk feel in 3/4 and I brought my melody to her feel – just thought it might work, and it did!
IJ: Why did you call yourselves Departure?
MN: We needed a name. Phill suggested Departure after Departure Bay. James and I liked it… Afterward I realized it had other connotations, and liked that too.
IJ: Tell us more about those connotations.
Point of departure. Departure physically from one location to another. Departure from the norm. hmm…… there are a few. I think this band is definitely a spring board for me and that’s how I’d like to make it work. As a point of musical departure.
IJ: What’s the group about musically?
MN: When Brent joined me in this endeavor it became a different kind of band. Partly because of his personality and set of skills, and also because with a chordal instrument things are just different. Brent and I had talked about doing a project together in past years, and base it on original material. So that’s what it became about at that point. It was my suggestion to bring in the Fender Rhodes and I knew that he was into the sound of that instrument… and in fact owns 2 Rhodes keyboards: one for gigs which stays “in the box” and the other set up in his studio. With the Rhodes there is the “throwback” to other bands, specifically Chick Corea. Curiously, we don’t cover any Chick. We’ve been covering Keith Jarrett a bit maybe because of my influence… its hard to say. Brent wrote a chart for “Questar” and I brought in a few others that we’ve not recorded yet. So we’re an original jazz quartet with a fusion influence is the easiest way to describe it.
IJ: What do Ken Lister and Buff Allen bring to the group?
They each bring their own thing to it. Buff is the nicest drummer to work with musically that I could dream of. He’s just an amazing accompanist, very intuitive and easy to communicate with. He really has a gift. And as far as the sound of the drums, it’s like a beautiful palette. Ken is new to the group, so with Ken, there’s this wonderful solidness to the time. With his fluidity it’s just so easy to play with him – I don’t have to work at all on time – its all taken care of. Ken is the ultimate sideman. I’m hoping that over time we’ll hear more of him in the sound of the band.
IJ You say you are fusion influenced. For some traditionalists “fusion” is a bit of a dirty word. Care to comment?
MN: Fusion is what jazz is. Jazz originates from the fusion of European and African music. It couldn’t have happened any other way. So if fusion is a dirty word then jazz is dirty stuff, because as I said the origins are a fusion of styles, and ever since it began it’s just drawn from everything around it because its an improvised art form. It even brought classical influences in with the arrangers such as Gil Evans to bring it full circle and rock and roll came from jazz and blues in the first place so why not use it in jazz?
You can learn more about Departure, sample some of their music and buy their album here. Better yet, catch them live on Sunday night (Hermann’s, 8pm, $15). Highly recommended.