Jazzworks 2009: Jazz Boot Camp for Adults

John Kelman By

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"Over the years we've done different things, like Kevin Barrett's done how to use a PA, how to get a sound; done things like how to pick tunes, how to learn tunes, how to play together. This afternoon there will be a free jazz ensemble; there's a composers' symposium—in three of the combos, the players bring in their own tunes. From one year to the next a faculty member might say, 'I'd like to do a workshop on such-and-such': one year we had a workshop on performance anxiety...as it relates to music, that is [laughs]. This year we have something on how to set up a practice regimen, various people talking about what they do. So it's not only the mechanics; it's also about the aesthetics, so when we have this talk about nerves, for many people it was a revelation that professionals also have issues about nerves, about preparedness, about finding their own voice; things that are a bit more esoteric. So there's a combination of the practical with the aesthetic."

Humenick picks up the conversation: "One of the workshops this morning was about what makes a good tune, and it got very theoretical. They were talking chord structures, and it was really very interesting. Very high level. For those who are already starting to compose, or who have a very good understanding of theory, it was very theoretical. But there was also the element of what makes a good melody, so it was an interesting workshop for those who were at that level."

Jazzworks Nick Fraser

"This morning we had a workshop for rhythm sections," Geggie continues, "yesterday morning we had master classes for individual instruments, for basses, pianos, drums. So in one room Nick [Fraser] and I were coaching one group, and in another Aldo [Mazza] was coaching another group. You put people together, you say 'Let's play a tune, let's see what happens.' So we can talk about the mechanics of what made it work, why it didn't work, what peoples' roles would be, what are the common pitfalls they may run into like counting off the tune, picking the key or where to accompany each other, what to do during the bass solo, how to figure out the logistics of trading fours. So it's very practical because they're running into these things all weekend.

"It's always a bit of a challenge to come up with a curriculum; keeping it fresh for everybody and also taking the basics into account. It also has to relate to where the overall level of the campers is from one year to the next. [Singer] Julie Michels did a workshop on jam sessions last night, because a lot of the campers had never played at a jam session and they're like deers in the headlights. And so they needed a little coaching on how to approach that."

It's like jazz boot camp, primarily for adults, though this year the age group ranged from 14 to 82. And it's intense—when the campers and faculty are not directly engaged in workshops, master classes or rehearsals, they seem to be always talking about jazz, even when they're taking a little time for a quick swim in the lake. It's like being on another planet where nothing else but the music matters.


Considering the opportunity for mentorship that's virtually impossible to find in the diminishing club scene these days, the fee for the jazz camp is incredibly reasonable. Campers pay $440 CDN, while those looking for a room with a bed in one of the site's many cabins pay an additional $130 for the three nights. Food is included, and is surprisingly good, considering it's a mass production affair for over 120 people. Tuition fees cover approximately two-thirds of the weekend's actual costs; the rest comes from grants at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, vary from year-to-year, and are heavily dependent on the economy, politics and who feels, at any given time, that it's important to support an effort like Jazzworks. It's no mean feat for Humenick, Geggie, Frayne and McLintock, who work all year on planning the next edition, from looking for grants to last minute calls to potential students in order to ensure, for example, that there are enough drummers for the camp's ensembles.

Spending Saturday afternoon wandering from rehearsal to rehearsal, perhaps most immediately striking was the differing approaches that the faculty took to achieve the same result: getting their ensembles rehearsed and ready to perform. Percussionist Aldo Mazza's approach was loose, as he played a version of "Seven Steps to Heaven" that traversed a number of Latin rhythms. Saxophonist Remi Bolduc, on the other hand, was more like a drill sergeant, albeit one with a terrific, self-effacing sense of humor. Ted Nash had to play mediator, as one member of his combo challenged the time of another; still, it was a direct lesson in the kind of negotiation that is a fundamental part of any working group and was an absolutely relevant experience.

Jazzworks Christine Duncan's Big Jazz Choir

Three afternoon seminars on improvisation took the students, after their individual combo rehearsals, towards dinnertime. With Fraser, Haynes, Martin and Lewis working on free jazz, it was not just an opportunity for the participants to learn how to open their ears and minds, it was an important lesson in one of the fundamentals of any improvising musician: that not playing is as much an active choice as playing is, and that, by making that choice, the musician is still shaping how the improvisation goes, also setting the stage for his/her entry. Webster and Barrett's reharmonization class was remarkable in its ability to make sense to players of all levels, explaining—and demonstrating—the concept of back-cycling in ways that gradually became clear to everyone. Duncan's "Big Jazz Choir" was a lesson in cued improv, as the singer gave individual subsets of her 18 member choir individual instructions that ranged from clear melodies to voice as percussion instrument; creating an ebbing and flowing, long-form piece that, like all the classes taking place, also put an emphasis on fun. Whether it was with the beginner group working its way through "Blue Moon" or a more advanced group taking on standards of greater challenge, enjoyment was key; but there was plenty of sweat, and some very promising players amongst this year's 93 students.

Following dinner, more rehearsals found Bolduc teaching the rhythm section of his class the concept of playing behind and on top of time; demonstrating clearly how nervous a rhythm section will sound if everyone is approaching time exactly the same way. He also worked with his two guitarists in the area of accompaniment, encouraging them to exchange military precision for something a little looser, a little less predictable. These were players capable of reading charts, but what Bolduc was aiming to demonstrate was how to take the notes on the written page and bring them to life...and swing. It was another encouraging example of how the faculty addressed various levels of expertise, getting key points across to all.

Jazzworks Faculty Concert l:r: Christine Duncan, Remi Bolduc, Ted Nash, Frank Lozano, Jean Martin, Jim Lewis, Nick Fraser

Each year the Saturday night Faculty Show is one of the most eagerly anticipated parts of the camp. After the late-night performance, a campfire and jam sessions ensue, although some years the concert inspires the students to get up and play; other years it scares them off—but only for the evening, as on Sunday morning it's back to preparing for the afternoon student concert.

Organizing a performance with 16 musicians of different backgrounds was challenging enough; doing it with virtually no rehearsal spoke to the high level of everyone involved. For two hours the faculty broke down into various permutations and combinations of subsets, with music ranging from mainstream to R&B. Pianist Gordon Webster and percussionist Aldo Mazza—playing only a single hand drum—worked their way through Chick Corea's classic, "Spain" with the kind of excitement of discovery that was clearly as much a surprise to them as it was to the audience. The altitude-challenged, ever-funny Julie Michels led a small group through a crowd-rousing, gospel-inflected tune that also featured a knockout solo from pianist Dave Restivo, as her singing went from coy and suggestive to downright provocative, answering the tremendous applause by saying, "If this is the response I get, I need to bathe more often."

Jazzworks l:r: Gordon Webster, Aldo Mazza

There wasn't a weak link in the group. Saxophonists Lozano, Bolduc and Nash all proved inventive in a multitude of contexts, while flugelhornist Jim Lewis delivered one of the best solos of night, making it a necessity for anyone in the audience to check him out further, once the weekend was over. Guitarist Kevin Barrett, on nylon-string guitar, was just as impressive as Restivo during Michels' feature, but it was Justin Haynes who proved to be one of the evening's biggest surprises. Best-known for more idiosyncratic playing in a free context—and earlier in the evening, he did plenty of that by bowing his guitar and twiddling enough knobs on his effects to get all kinds of unexpected sounds out of his electric guitar; but it was in the finale, a fabulous arrangement by Rob Frayne, where he proved that he may choose to work in a freer context, but when faced with changes and a more mainstream, large ensemble setting, he's still just as capable at navigating changes and creating incredibly compelling melodies that completely avoided any kind of repetitive pattern pitfalls. If the concert proved anything, it was that there's a huge groundswell of incredibly talented Canadian artists (Nash was, of course, just as fine, but is more established in New York) looking for a larger audience.

Christine Duncan's free improv reading of Jim Croce's hit, "If I Could Save Time in a Bottle" was an terrific demonstration of vocal pyrotechnics that extended beyond the merely melodic into sounds that a human voice shouldn't rightly be able to make (but she did anyway). But through it all, with a backing sextet featuring Nick Fraser, Jean Martin (another amazing demonstration of two drummers absolutely never getting in each other's way; instead, working together with a single purpose), Haynes, Lewis, Lozano and Geggie, Duncan also proved capable of profound lyricism.

Geggie—who only got one break in the entire performance—continued to demonstrate just how important the last couple years have been for him; a time where he's taken tremendous steps forward in creating a distinctive voice and, through his ongoing concert series and as leader of the Ottawa Jazz Festival jam sessions, is capable of working in absolutely any context.

It was a terrific way to end the evening, even as students young and old went off to the campfire to roast some marshmallows and continue talking about the unifying reason they were there. The next morning came all too quickly, with a lot of people running on a couple hours' sleep and plenty of coffee. But they remained focused, as they hit the ground running, once again, to get to final rehearsals for the afternoon concert.



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