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Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra: Suite 150 / A Big Band Portrait

Jack Bowers By

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To commemorate Canada's one hundred-fiftieth anniversary in 2017, the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra commissioned eleven of the country's foremost jazz composers to write music "reflecting some aspect of Canada or being Canadian." The resulting Suite 150 was performed for appreciative audiences and recorded for posterity in November 2017 and March 2018 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Besides writing, five of the composers double as soloists on their own themes: trumpeters Richard Gillis ("From Far & Wide") and Christine Jensen ("Maple"), trombonist Jeff Presslaff ("Here"), pianists Hilario Duran ("Ontario's Memories") and Ron Paley ("The More You Know"). Paley also solos on Fred Stride's "Waves," Gillis on David Braid's "In Paradisium." Setting aside the suite's over-arching theme, which would be musically irrelevant to most listeners, the question becomes, is it auspicious and engaging enough to capture and hold one's attention? And the answer to that is yes and no.

To put it another way, the suite's component parts are well-written, and each one has its moments. There are, on the other hand, passages that are less than provocative, and these serve to dampen its over-all tenor and charm. Please bear in mind, however, that this is but one cursory opinion; others may find the suite far more felicitous from end to end, and surely there are persuasive arguments to be made in that respect. Listeners should weigh its import for themselves.

The music, if less than conspicuously thematic, is indeed wide-ranging, its authors accomplished and admired. In addition to those mentioned, they include Dean McNeill (the opening "Common Place Fanfare"), Andrew Balfour ("Wenen," or "Who"), Earl MacDonald ("Cirrus") and Michelle Gregoire (the especially pleasing finale, "La Nouvelle Nation"). And while improvisation isn't at the forefront, there are admirable solos along the way by altos Neil Watson and Matthew Steckler, trumpeter McNeill, percussionist Rodrigo Muñoz, soprano Mark DeJong, tenor Paul Belcan and pianist Gregoire.

In sum, an ambitious and for the most part salutary homage to Canada and its remarkable history inscribed by eleven of the country's leading jazz composers and performed by one of its more talented orchestras. You needn't be Canadian to enjoy the ride.

Track Listing: A Common Place Fanfare; From Far & Wide; Wenen; Waves; Ontario’s Memories; Here: 49 Degrees 52’ 34” N 97 Degrees 8’ 42” W; The More You Know; In Paradisum; Cirrus; Maple; La Nouvelle Nation (The New Nation).

Personnel: Richard Gillis: artistic director, trumpet, flugelhorn; Shane Hicks: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jeff Johnson: trumpet, flugelhorn; Rick Boughton: trumpet, flugelhorn (2, 3, 5, 8); Dean McNeill: trumpet, flugelhorn (1, 4, 6, 7, 9-11); Darren Ritchie: trumpet, flugelhorn (1, 4, 6, 7, 9-11); Mark DeJong: soprano sax (4, 6), alto sax (1, 7, 9-11); Neil Watson: alto sax; Matthew Steckler: alto sax (2, 3, 5, 8); Christine Jensen: alto sax (10); Paul Balcain: tenor sax; Jonathan Stevens: tenor sax; Ken Gold: baritone sax; Joel Green: trombone; D’Arcy McLean: trombone; Jeff Presslaff: trombone; Brad Shigeta: trombone; Will Bonness: piano (2, 3, 8); Hilario Duran: piano (5); Michelle Gregoire: piano (9-11); Ron Paley: piano (4, 6, 7); Gilles Fournier: bass; Rob Siwik: drums; Rodrigo Munoz: percussion.

Title: Suite 150 / A Big Band Portrait | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: WJO

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