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Altsys Jazz Orchestra at 2008 IAJE Conference, Toronto

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Altsys Jazz Orchestra
2008 International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) conference
Toronto, Canada
January 10, 2008

The combination of a composer who bases his work on Canadian poetry and a fiery American saxophonist was a real crowd-pleaser at the 2008 International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) conference.

The composer was trumpeter Bill Mahar, co-leader of the Montreal-based Altsys Jazz Orchestra. The saxophonist was New York-based Donny McCaslin, who has been collaborating with Altsys for the last decade. McCaslin adds an incisiveness, an urgency to the music which complements the depth of the orchestra's sound. He is an intense player, moving up and down as he pulls every possible note out of his sax, and practically panting at the end of an extended solo.

Nevertheless, he was well supported by the thirteen-member Altsys orchestra, whose standard brass, reed, and percussion sections were enriched with French horn, tuba and congas. The members have experience in many other Montreal bands, particularly Frank Lozano on tenor sax, Jocelyn Couture and Aron Doyle on trumpet, and Jim Doxas on drums. Mahar, who composed and/or arranged all of the pieces played at the Thursday afternoon concert, did the same for the late Bernard Primeau's band for many years, as well as working with Vic Vogel's band and other large Montreal ensembles.

McCaslin entered with the standard that is every tenor player's calling card—"Body and Soul," arranged by Mahar with "the tip of a hat to John Coltrane." The chart gave McCaslin lots of room for extended, syncopated solo development. By the time the full band joined in after a resonant bass solo, his taut stance and soulful blowing embodied the song. He tailed off with a slow vibrato, but suddenly started up again with a punctuated restatement of the theme, the notes pushing higher and higher, and then growling downwards. The song finally ended with a fanfare by the entire orchestra.

The same energy and commitment—and surprises—were apparent in the remaining three pieces. Mahar's "Le Conte de Petites Croix" from a poem by Quebec writer Christian Richard, started off with a quiet duet between McCaslin and conductor Jennifer Bell on flute, the pair sounding like birds circling in the air. This texture was slowly enhanced by low, atmospheric playing from the other sax players, followed by Lozano on flute, a slow trumpet solo by Mahar, and then a bell-like piano interlude by Pierre Francois. Suddenly it all changed: McCaslin introduced an abrasive solo, like horns honking in a traffic jam, and the rhythm section and full brass section added to the clangor. Then slowly the music modulated to a quieter but fuller sound, like waves crashing on a shore, as McCaslin's solos became more and more assertive, building up to a crescendo, and with a wave from Bell, suddenly stopped.

Kenny Wheeler's "Gnu Suite (part 1)" showed the band in a more swinging mood, with a bouncy piano solo and a lilting lead from McCaslin. Mahar had rearranged this to add instruments to the original brass-only mix. While it still started out with McCaslin on soprano sax against Bell on flute, the percussion entered soon after as McCaslin steadily circled around the theme, increasing the intensity. After a crescendo from the entire orchestra, McCaslin entered again, accompanied only by the bass, in a slow sweet fadeout.

The orchestra ended with the title track from their latest CD, "Watercolours" (Swing'in Time, 2007), which Mahar wrote based on a poem by black Nova Scotia author George Elliott Clarke. The initial combination of Lozano's flute, McCaslin's sax, a sparkling solo by Francois on piano, and finally a sinuous interlude by Mahar on trumpet, sounded like water over pebbles: quiet, pretty, and soothing. But then McCaslin erupted into a very different beat: fast, repetitive, the notes popping out. Doxas underlined the new mood with fast, choppy drumming, heavy on the cymbals. Lozano joined in on sax, slightly more melodic but still fast, their duet sounding like a geyser shooting straight up. The band joined in, and finally McCaslin faded out, accompanied by only the quiet rustle of maracas.

Bell said after the concert that Clarke's poem is about racism, which historically was a serious problem in the black enclaves in Nova Scotia. Toronto pianist Joe Sealy earlier addressed the same issue in his Africville Suite (SeaJam, 1997), but Mahar's piece was more abstract and angry, and didn't use the same gospel motifs as Sealy's piece.

The audience was quiet during the concert, concentrating on the music. As soon as it ended, however, they immediately erupted with a standing ovation. It was well-deserved recognition of Mahar's original music, played with a wide range of tones, textures, and intensity, and always with the orchestra's total commitment.

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