On Saskatchewan Suite
, composer/arranger Fred Stride
and the twenty-member Saskatchewan All Star Big Band have combined to paint a luminous and colorful portrait of that western Canadian province, canvassing 150 years of its history in eight picturesque movements that describe in musical terms the land itself, its indigenous peoples, newcomers from Europe and elsewhere, its recognition in 1905 as a province, the importance of various sports to Saskatchewan's inhabitants, and the legacy of jazz as an essential part of its heritage, one whose seeds were planted in the early years of the twentieth century and have blossomed to enable the sort of virtuosic tribute that is presented here.
Indeed, while Stride has built a handsome and sturdy vehicle, it is jazz that makes the engine hum, especially on the final movement, "Saskatchejazz," wherein Stride moves effortlessly through the decades, taking nearly twenty minutes to sketch the genre's development from trad to swing, big band to bop, Latin to fusion and beyond. The ensemble is at its thundering best here, with dynamic solos by residents in every section and a resounding coda that awakens tantalizing memories of the boisterous heyday of Stan Kenton
, Woody Herman
and Buddy Rich
. Speaking of the band, every one of its members was either born, raised and/or lives in Saskatchewan. And the term "All Star" is right on targetthere's a proven master in every chair.
As for the composer, he took the daunting task of delineating the sum and substance of Saskatchewan's unique and impressive heritage in stride, drafting its outline in strokes both delicate and bold, always keeping musical substance in the forefront while never overlooking the suite's cardinal purpose, to render a lyrical portrait of the remarkable history of Saskatchewan. Stride begins softly, portraying in Movement 1, "The Place," the tranquil ambience of the landscape as it shifts from sandy dunes and passive forests to open skies and rolling prairie before accelerating to keep pace with the busy towns and cities of the province. The indigenous peoples are next, introduced on Movement 2, "The First," by assertive drumming that gives way to stalwart blowing by the ensemble and an earnest solo by tenor saxophonist Kelly Jefferson
. Movement 3, "The Newcomers," welcomes immigrants to the province by train or on foot, bringing with them their buoyant, European-style brand of folk songs and dances, underscored here by pianist Jon Ballantyne
and alto saxophonist PJ Perry
. Movement 4, "The In-Between," salutes Saskatchewan's long history of fiddle music, with violinist Ed Minevich and tenor Steve Kaldestad
riffing on the traditional dance and fiddle theme, "Red River Jug."
Movement 5, "September 1905," uses celerity and joy to recognize Saskatchewan's formal entry into the roster of Canadian provinces, vigorously imparting its message of concord behind crisp solos by Ballantyne, trumpeter Dave Mossing
and trombonist Ross Ulmer
before closing with a brief taste of "O Canada" to ice the cake. Sports have always been an inbred part of life in Saskatchewan, and Stride manages through musical sleight-of-hand to depict contests as diverse as baseball, football, curling and hockey with admirable help from the band and soloists Jefferson, trumpeter Andy King and drummer Ted Warren
. Movement 7, "Thank You, Mr. Douglas," pays homage to Thomas Clement (Tommy) Douglas, who served as premier of Saskatchewan from 1944-61 and was instrumental in bringing universal health care to Canada, and is dedicated to the composer's father, Frederick A. Stride, who passed away while the suite was being written. Bassist Miles Hill
is showcased on the hymn-like theme, whose inspiration lay in Douglas' beginnings as a minister.
It's not often that an album of thematic music hits the mark as cleanly and squarely as this one. Full credit to composer Stride and the Saskatchewan All Star Big Band for an exceptionally well-written and well-performed concert (there was an audience for the premiere at Casa Regina, even though its presence is well-nigh imperceptible). And oh, yes, the album is heartily recommended with neither pause nor indecision.
The Place; The First; The Newcomers; The In-Between; September 1905; Saskatchesport; Thank You, Mr.
Jack Semple: Guitar; Dylan Wiest: Vibraphone & Percussion; Ed Minevich: Violin; Cam Wilson: Violin