Getting ready to “Straighten Up And Fly Right”

As a child, I grew up listening and singing along to Ella, Billie, Sarah, Carmen, Blossom, Frank, Louis and many more, including the incomparable Nat King Cole. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I began to listen to his “King Cole Trio” albums in a really obsessive fashion. I discovered how much I was drawn to his warm and sincere vocals. I loved his effortless swing, his outstanding piano comping and the fabulous ‘togetherness’ of his drummerless trio with Oscar Moore on guitar and Johnny Miller on the bass.

I loved the fact that, nestled amongst more widely-covered classics like “Sweet Lorraine” and “Too Marvelous For Words,” there were other, lesser known tunes that nobody else could make swing quite like him.

Take the song “What can I say (after I say I’m sorry?)”  Despite some rather ho-hum lyrics, Nat made this tune so memorably his own. Once you’ve heard Nat’s version, the recordings made in subsequent decades by Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin pale in comparison and none swing as much as Nat’s.

Listening to his recording of “‘Tis Autumn,” you realize another quality that sets Nat’s interpretations apart – his unique melodic variations. These invariably improve and enhance the melody. His little changes are so subtle and unobtrusive that you don’t quite realize what he’s done until you’re listening to another singer’s version of the same tune and finding yourself wishing for the “Nat-isms.”

When I suggested to Adrian that the OJO do a tribute to Nat for the 100th anniversary of his birth, I was initially resigned to the fact that I’d have to abandon my usual multilingual repertoire. But as I researched Nat’s discography more thoroughly in preparation for the show, I was amazed to discover that he had made records in French, Spanish and Portuguese. His beautiful voice rises above any issues of pronunciation as he sings some of his big hits in translation.

I’m very excited about performing this show on April 6th with Mark Ferguson on piano, Adrian Cho on bass, Tim Bedner on guitar and Mike Tremblay on saxophone. We look forward to sharing this music with you. Can’t wait to see you there!

Why I became part of OJO’s team

I’m Cathy and I help Ottawa Jazz Orchestra with the financial and administrative responsibilities. I’m also a musician: a classically trained clarinetist that loves playing baritone saxophone, too. I play all the clarinets and all the saxophones…even the monstrous bass saxophone. I’ve played clarinet in concert bands, woodwind quintets, chamber groups, and symphony ensembles. I have also played in saxophone quartets, jazz bands and show bands on baritone saxophone.

I was hired to perform with OJO back when it was called Impressions in Jazz Orchestra. The music was challenging enough to require significant hours of ‘woodshedding’ on my part. Listening carefully to original performances, learning the nuances of the notes on the page, rehearsing the instrument switches so that there were no glitches, practicing so that the music flowed. Then THE rehearsal with the whole group: intense, long, and scary! Scary because it became clear that there were a few spots that could have used more rehearsal but now time was running out. And then it was the performance. And it was exhilarating! Everyone pulled out all the stops and IJO made exciting music that our audience loved. Worth every bit of effort.

As a doubler (playing more than one instrument on a single gig), I got hired for quite a few more gigs with IJO/OJO and had great fun on every single one. More musical challenge than I had had for a long while. Lots of audience appreciation, too. And OJO was performing music that no one else was doing. Quite simply, I wanted to give something back.

When Adrian invited me to join the board, I didn’t need time to think about it. I know that an organization like this takes a lot of behind the scenes activities. Adrian had been single-handedly doing most of it with the help of a few close friends. Keeping this type of music performance viable seemed like a good idea and I wanted to help achieve that: it has been several years now, through a few long-distance stints, and retirement, and continuous OJO changes and challenges. Though I no longer perform with them, I love that I can still help Ottawa Jazz Orchestra bring such diverse concerts to Ottawa audiences. Best of all, it’s still exciting and fun and of course the most wonderful music!

How the OJO goes beyond the jazz mainstream

Recently at a pre-show chat for our December concert, Bird in the Reeds, someone asked me where the ideas for OJO programming come from.

One of the things I’ve always felt strongly about is the need to present variety and to introduce music to people that they might not have previously heard.

Way back in 2005 when I first began presenting concerts in Ottawa, I was always determined to present something different and unique. There are many jazz orchestras around the world and I find that far too many of them limit themselves to a very narrow subset of the genre. Jazz is a very broad genre and while there’s the “jazz mainstream,” I’ve always been fascinated by the third stream of music that’s a hybrid of jazz and classical music as well as neoclassical music that is strongly influenced by jazz. I’m also fascinated by the huge variety of acoustic instruments and their timbres. Incorporating instruments not typically found in the jazz mainstream is always a great way to add a new element.

In January we have a fantastic concert in which the largest part of the ensemble will be strings as in violin, violas, celli, and harp. All too often, when strings are employed in jazz they are relegated to playing “pads” as in long, sustained, notes. Whenever we have strings I always want to give them interesting, groovy, swinging parts. It’s was more interesting for them and for the audience.

Generally I program each season as it comes although there have been so notable works such as Milestones and Sketches of Spain (written by Gil Evans for Miles Davis), Focus (written by Eddie Sauter for Stan Getz), that were planned for one or more seasons ahead before we actually scheduled and performed them. That’s usually because they are such large and complex works that the logistics require substantial planning. Apart from these major works, I usually don’t think about the next season much until about six months before we announce it and then it’s a matter of figuring out a cohesive set of concerts with diverse programming through the season and where each concert can both entertain and educate our audiences and our musicians can be both challenged and have a lot of fun. This last goal is so important as I feel that when the musicians are having fun on stage it is so much more enjoyable for the audience too.

Supersax and the music of Bird

The idea for our second season concert, Bird in the Reeds, began with my love of the sound of the saxophone quintet. I was reminded of this instrumentation when we were playing some of the saxophone quintet arrangements from the Terry Gibbs Vibes on Velvet albums in the Wes’ Coast Vibes concert from last season.

The typical saxophone quintet is the same lineup you see in the front row of the jazz orchestra: two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, and a baritone saxophone. The combined sound of these five saxophones is a thing of beauty. Occasionally in a big band tune you will hear the saxophone section play a soli where the saxophones play a melodic line that is harmonised through the section. One of my favourite early examples is the saxophone soli in Cottontail. Check it out at in this recording. The soli starts about 2 minutes into the recording. Another favourite saxophone soli is the one in Benny Carter’s Symphony in Riffs. You can check out a recording here. The soli starts about 39 seconds into the recording and continues throughout most of the piece interspersed by various solos.

One of the things that gives these saxophone soli such a unique shimmering sound is the vibrato that the players use. Just like string players do when they pivot their left fingers back and forth, the saxophone players must rapidly move their jaw up and down to vary their embouchure, the shape of their lips around the saxophone mouthpiece, in order to rapidly oscillate the pitch up and down. It’s such a critically important technique because it’s often essential to a certain sound but it can sound terrible when overused. Furthermore, when multiple instruments are playing together, they have to match the depth and speed of their vibrato to achieve a uniform sound.

Once I had decided that I would like to feature a saxophone quintet, it took less than five seconds for the incredible music of the Supersax group to rise to the top of the list of candidates. Although they played jazz from previous decades, Supersax was actually formed in 1972 by saxophonist Med Flory and bassist Buddy Clark. It’s particularly interesting that the primary goal of the group was to play harmonised versions of Charlie Parker’s improvised solos. By harmonising Bird’s solos, they were effectively arranging and orchestrating, in written form, melodies that Parker improvised in real-time. In a way, this is somewhat similar to the art of vocalese in which Jon Hendricks and others would pen lyrics to improvised solos of various musicians.

The Supersax arrangements are a wonderful reminder of the brilliance of Bird’s soloing. His improvised melodies have been played and sung by so many people over the years. Most jazz musicians, and many listeners, can quote some of his solos verbatim. By harmonising these solos Med Flory showed us and reminded us of just how strong Parker’s melodic compositions were. Many of the arrangements were also an incredible example of the virtuosity, not just of Bird, but of the players in the Supersax group.

There’s so much interesting history about the Supersax group and it’s leader Med Flory. Although the group didn’t really come into public existence until 1972, the origins go all the way back to 1956. Flory began transcribing some of Bird’s solos and then wrote arrangements in which he harmonised the solos. He and saxophonists Joe Maini, Joe Kennedy, Richie Kamuca, and Bill Hood played them for fun. When bassist Buddy Clark heard them he suggested Flory write more arrangements. However it wasn’t until the 1970s when the Supersax group really became a thing. The group apparently rehearsed in Flory’s home for over a year until Flory’s wife suggested they play at a Los Angeles club called “Dontes.” The crowds loved what they heard and the group ended up recording Supersax Plays Bird for Capitol Records and went on to tour all over the world and record nine albums, with one of them winning a Grammy award in 1974.

Oh yeah and Med Flory was also an actor who appeared in TV shows such as Maverick, Gomer Pyle, Perry Mason, Daniel Boone, and in movies such as The Nutty Professor with Jerry Lewis!

Isfahan from the Far East Suite

I remember many, many years ago we were performing Such Sweet Thunder, also known as the Shakespearean Suite, composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. A musician in the audience was talking to me after the concert and said, “Now I understand why Sandy Gordon is in this orchestra!” Sandy has been with the OJO since the very beginning, along with a handful of other fine musicians including our drummer Mark Rehder, trumpeter Rick Rangno, trombonist Mark Ferguson, and saxophonist and clarinettist Dave Renaud. Sandy used to play principal alto sax in the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces for many years and just retired recently. He has the most incredible control over the saxophone. This performance of Isfahan, one of the lovely ballads from Ellington and Strayhorn’s Far East Suite, and arguably one of the most beautiful ballads ever written in jazz, features the most sublime playing from Sandy. This was recorded at our Lush Life concert last season. I hope you enjoy this. I can listen to it over and over.

Bill Evans and Horace Silver – a perfect pairing

For our first concert I started not with the music but with the instrumentation. I’ve always had a love affair with the nonet – a nine-piece ensemble that’s not as large as a big band in size but still has a substantial sound. An ensemble of this size is what often comes to mind when we talk about “chamber jazz” which suggests jazz performed by smaller ensembles like those used in chamber music. Small enough that they can fit into palace chambers or large rooms.

In the very first concert I presented in Ottawa in 2005, the main act was a performance of the Birth of the Cool music which was composed by Gil Evans, Johnny Carisi, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Miles Davis, and others. The album is most commonly associated with Miles Davis because he was the one who got a gig at the Royal Roost and a recording contract for the group. Yet the music and the concept of that nonet was birthed in the New York apartment of Gil Evans where he and other musicians used to hang out, listen to recordings, and talk about possible projects that might undertake.

The Birth of the Cool nonet had six horns, grouped into three pairs, alto and baritone saxophone, trumpet and trombone, and the conical brass pair of French horn and tuba. They were backed up by a classic three-piece rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. That instrumentation was heavily inspired by the Claude Thornhill Orchestra that Gil Evans was a part of. The Thornhill orchestra incorporated French horns, clarinets, bass clarinets, flutes, and tuba, and had all of the horns playing without vibrato. This was a unique concept at a time when the “sweet” bands, such as those of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, employed copious vibrato. Thornhill also employed mixed voicings that blended the various instruments to achieve a range of different textures. The unique sounds were also obtained by having the instruments play at the extremes of their ranges. Sometimes this would be done in counter-intuitive fashion with the bass instruments playing up higher than the treble instruments. The Thornhill band had eighteen members, and Evans and the musicians who would eventually help form the Birth of the Cool nonet came up with the idea of an ensemble that would be half that number but would have a sound palette similar to the Thornhill orchestra.

Over the years we have performed other music written for this same instrumentation including some great music written by Virginia composer, Terry Vosbein, who came to visit us in Ottawa last season when we performed his fabulous La Chanson Francaise, a suite of French music which he scored for a nonet of alto and baritone saxophone, two trumpets, two trombones, piano, bass, and drums.

For our first 2018-2019 concert, we’re using yet another slightly different nonet configuration. This one has five horns – alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, trumpet, and trombone, and a four-piece rhythm section with piano, guitar, bass, and drums.

What all of these nonet configurations have in common is an opportunity and a challenge for a composer or arranger to make a small group sound much bigger. It’s the sound of a little big band and additional variety can be added by having the saxophone players double on other instruments such as flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet.

As a bassist, I have always admired Chuck Israels for his playing but also for his writing. In recent years he has written two wonderful sets of arrangements for a nonet. One is the music of Horace Silver and another is the music of Bill Evans. Two pianists with vastly different styles but together they make a wonderfully complementary pair if you interweave their music together. Silver’s music is incredibly groovy with plenty of blues, dirt, and grease thrown in. Evans’s music is much more inventive and explores and pushes the boundaries of rhythm and harmony. It’s definitely more of a challenge to play and sometimes to listen to but the rewards are there. In both cases, this music was written by pianists who orchestrated primarily through the keyboard. This is especially true for Evans who played primarily in a trio format with just piano, bass, and drums where the piano was the primary melodic and harmonic device.

Israels took all of this great music and in arranging it for a nonet, he did what great arrangers should do which is not just to orchestrate the music for the instrumentation at hand, but also to re-compose parts, incorporate other material, re-harmonise, and effectively create new works out of great source material.

I’m pretty confident this will be the first time these arrangements will have been performed anywhere in Canada and we’re really looking forward to tackling them. You can check out a performance by Israels’s own nonet performing the Bill Evans tunes, “Show-Type Tune” right here.

Amad from the Far East Suite

Last season we paid tribute to the great Billy Strayhorn who was best known as Duke Ellington’s collaborator. We performed an entire program of music composed by Strayhorn and Ellington in a concert entitled “Lush Life.” We’re thrilled to share some of the footage from that concert now. Check out this performance of “Amad” from the fabulous Far East Suite. It’s the eighth movement in a fabulous nine-movement suite. This performance features Mark Ferguson on trombone and the whole band just having a ball playing this great music.

How the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra came to be

It’s hard to believe that the OJO has been running now for thirteen seasons. It’s arguably even more than that. Way back in 2005, I presented a single concert entitled “The Magic of Miles Davis” at the NAC Fourth Stage as an initial concert in a series to be known as “Impressions in Jazz.” The following year I presented two concerts, one at the Fourth Stage, and another at Dominion-Chalmers United Church. It was at this second concert that the “Impressions in Jazz Orchestra” made its first appearance and this is what would eventually later become the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra.

The really exciting part about that concert and what would follow was not just that the ensemble brought together many of the best professional jazz and classical musicians in Ottawa but that our programming for each concert was so unique and that we always tried to both entertain and educate. We certainly weren’t shy about taking on challenges. Presenting major works such as Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain, and even a whole Nutcracker show with dancers, actors, and multimedia were major undertakings but so worth it.

Over the years, we performed countless concerts, almost always featuring larger ensembles and we relished employing unusual instrumentation. At that 2006 concert we performed two major works: Duke Ellington’s Liberian Suite and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass. While Liberian Suite does employ a typical 15-piece big band, it also has vibes, a vocal baritone solo, and a violin solo. Africa/Brass has very interesting instrumentation including French horns, euphoniums, and various woodwinds.

I always loved performing and presenting music that crossed genres between jazz, classical, and other forms. At various concerts we had swing dancers, tap dancers, modern dancers, and even Shakespearean actors. Over the years we’ve presented everything straight ahead jazz to free jazz and we’ve explored works influenced by music from Spain, France, Brazil, Cuba, and a lot more.

Many of the works we performed were Ottawa or Canadian premieres. Along the way we changed our name to the more fitting “Ottawa Jazz Orchestra.” For a while our home was in the double ballrooms of the Crowne Plaza hotel (now the Delta) and then later we were at Dominion-Chalmers for many seasons. We tried the Shenkman Arts Centre for one season. Eventually we came back to the National Arts Centre and the Fourth Stage. Fitting bigger ensembles on the stage is sometimes a challenge but we love the ambience and the recent renovations have made the sound in the room wonderful for even with larger ensembles.

Occasionally people ask if we ever perform at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival. We’re actually one of the few local ensembles (perhaps even the only one) that has performed in three of the leading series in the festival. In 2005 we performed in the Connoisseur Series at Library and Archives, then in 2006 we performed in the Studio Series at the National Arts Centre, and in 2008 we performed on the main stage in Confederation Park as part of the Great Canadian Jazz series. It has indeed been a while since we were at the festival and perhaps we’ll go back one day but we feel honoured to have presented the performances we did.

What has been most incredible about the OJO is that every year has truly been better than the last. We owe so much of our success to our audience and to the incredible musicians that we’re so lucky to have in Ottawa.