The IAJE Crosses the Border
Saturday, the last day of the conference, opened on a bright note with a visit to the Fairmont’s Imperial Room for the second of two Instrumental New Music Reading sessions (I try to catch at least one of them each year, as coordinator Lou Fischer always has a group of outstanding musicians on hand to sight-read new charts, and I leave with my faith in the future of big-band Jazz renewed). At eleven, I trekked upstairs to the Concert Hall to hear director Gordon Foote’s superlative Jazz Orchestra I from McGill University in Montréal. That was a no-brainer, as two of their albums ( Something Personal, Sang-Froid ) had earned places of honor on my annual Top Ten list in Cadence magazine of the year’s best recordings (college or pro), and a third, the recently released Conundrum, most of which I’d previewed before the conference, will no doubt earn similar recognition.
To see and hear the McGill ensemble I had to forgo a second performance (at the Convention Centre) by the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra and most of another, in the nearby Fairmont Ballroom, by Toronto’s Humber College, although I caught some of that one by racing back and forth between numbers. What I heard of Humber (with guest tenor Pat LaBarbera) was quite good, while McGill was mildly disappointing, which I would attribute partly to an inhospitable venue (the smaller Ballroom was better suited acoustically to accommodate a big band) and partly to a program that emphasized subtlety and color at the expense of exuberance and power (although things perked up near the close with Holman’s arrangement of “Indiana” and Oliver Nelson’s take on “Down by the Riverside”). Even so, McGill is the real deal, and one need only listen to any of their albums to erase any doubt about that.
At noon, I caught part of a spirited set in the Imperial Room by the Clifford Brown / Stan Getz All-Stars before being confronted at one o’clock by another difficult choice: the Garfield High School Jazz Ensemble from Seattle, WA (Concert Hall) or the Thomson Big Band from Singapore (Ballroom). Also during that hour, the Maritime Jazz Orchestra featuring trumpeter Kenny Wheeler was appearing at the Metro Centre’s Constitution Hall. I chose Garfield High, largely because the guest soloist was one of my favorite players, Bill Watrous, who was featured on J.J. Johnson’s “Lament.” It proved to be an excellent choice, as director Clarence Acox has sculpted one of the country’s finest high-school Jazz ensembles (Watrous said he was awed by their talent), and the hour was loaded with one highlight after another, from Fernando Gelbard’s “Candy Bar” to (trumpeter) Ray Brown’s “In Orbit.” Still, I wish I could have seen and heard the Thomson band (not to mention MYJO and Humber). There must be a way in which the IAJE schedulers can separate (as much as possible) appearances by big bands so fanatics such as I don’t have to face such difficult choices. Maybe next year . . .
After lunch on Saturday, I passed up a two-hour interview / panel discussion with Oscar Peterson at the Metro Centre in favor of sessions by the BET Sisters in Jazz Collegiate All-Stars (Fairmont Imperial Room) and HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) All-Star Big Band (Fairmont Ballroom) with guests Jimmy Owens (trumpet) and Ed Thigpen (drums). Even without the legendary Gerald Wilson conducting (as he had the year before in Long Beach, CA), the Basie-oriented HBCU band was smokin’ from the outset, much to the delight and appreciation of a standing-room-only audience. After coming back down to earth, I hustled upstairs to the Concert Hall for another hair-raising performance, this one by the crackerjack Columbus (OH) Jazz Orchestra under its recently hired conductor, Byron Stripling (who doubled on trumpet). Again, there’s no point in rehearsing the details; one had to be there (especially for the weekend's most remarkable trumpet solo, by ex-Chicagoan Brad Goode). But if you’re ever in an area where Stripling and the CJO are playing, do whatever it takes to stop by and listen. You won’t regret it.