Posted on | November 16, 2011 | 3 Comments
by Nou Dadoun
Since its release last month, accolades for the Phil Dwyer Orchestra‘s release Changing Seasons have been seemingly unanimous. Writing for a large ensemble, especially incorporating strings is notoriously tough to pull off. Most jazz projects with strings end up being star vehicles (like Charlie Parker or Clifford Brown “with strings”), head-butting exercises (Stan Getz or Ornette Coleman “versus strings”), sonic sweetening, or unnaturally forced third-stream amalgamations. As a composer Phil Dwyer has managed to write an extended jazz orchestra piece which is not only an organic blending of all the members of the ensemble but profoundly democratic in its approach.
In fact, rather than being a star vehicle for Dwyer himself (whose talents on both saxophone and piano would certainly justify that role), the featured soloist is violinist Mark Fewer who straddles the jazz and classical world having performed with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (as concertmaster from 2004 to 2008), as featured soloist with the Hard Rubber Orchestra, is chair of the Schulich School of Music and who has numerous recordings of contemporary music.
Phil Dwyer was my guest on the A-Trane earlier this month and after taking pains to ensure that pianist Chris Gestrin was properly credited for his outstanding solo in the Spring movement of Changing Seasons, he expanded on his sister’s comment:
PD: Sometimes when I listen to it I feel the same way. When I listen to it, I can hear the results of all those years of hard work and studying and trying to decode some of the mysteries of the great players.
The string session was just magic, one thing I try to do every time I write something is bring the lessons of the previous projects to bear on whatever I’m working on. So over the last number of many years of writing for string players in different situations, you start to learn how to speak their language and what kinds of things they feel comfortable doing. The same concept as writing for horn players but they tend to be different things, you can write for a great string section but sometimes it’s rhythmic issues that creep in and stop it from sounding really integrated. I got lucky or I’ve been paying attention because the first few times I wrote for strings there were definitely some things that I just didn’t know and I went on a mission to try to learn as much as possible. It continues, not really a process that I can see an end to …
ND: Let’s back up a little bit, can you talk a little bit about how the session came about?
PD: The piece came about as a piece that I had proposed to [violinist] Mark Fewer, he thought it was a good idea and we went through a few early drafts in terms of what instrumentation it would be. Eventually we worked out a partnership between the jazz program and the string program at McGill University. We did a performance there almost exactly a year ago with a combination of McGill students, some teachers and some members of the freelance community. It went well and it really gave us an idea of what went well in the piece.
So from November of last year to July of this year , I did anything I could to make the recording happen. I tried to figure out where to do it and I’m really happy that we decided to do it [at The Factory studio] in Vancouver. I was on the floor with a bunch of musicians that I grew up playing with, and some of them were my teachers when I was younger like [saxophonist] Tom Keenliside and [trombonist/composer] Ian McDougall. The comfort level between the musicians was really high. There were a few people I wanted to bring in as special guests, Walter White who has worked with Maynard Ferguson and Jazz at Lincoln Center came and played lead trumpet, [trumpeter] Ingrid Jensen came in and did a cameo solo on one tune, her husband Jon [Wikan] was playing drums and [saxophonist] PJ Perry came from out of town. But out of the 38-piece band, 33 of them were Vancouver musicians.
ND: I was thinking with Ingrid Jensen’s solo spot, she drops into so many sessions and does one tune that just lifts the bandstand. Like her performance on Transit with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society or the Diva Jazz Orchestra or Maria Schneider – always comes in and nails it beautifully, and her solo on Winter is so wonderful.
PD: We did six takes of her solo and each take was better than the other one! But the one that’s on the record is so great, she’s ridiculous! By the way, you’ll notice that Winter is the longest track which is a tribute to Canadian reality but in the middle of it we go south!
ND: The recording is marked as recorded in association with The Hard Rubber Orchestra which I believe both you and Mark Fewer have collaborated with and of course, John Korsrud and a number of other hard rubbers play on the recording.
PD: The Hard Rubber organization and Diane Kadota were absolutely key in getting this done from an administrative standpoint. I had a bevy of very generous private sponsors for a very expensive project – I was really lucky in knowing people that believed in what I was doing and I was able to tell people with an absolutely straight face that this was the best work that I’d done ever. So now that it’s out and it’s getting really well reviewed, I think that everybody’s really pleased to be a part of it.
ND: You don’t really do that many projects as a leader, even the trio recording [Let Me Tell You About My Day] is a few years old now.
PD: That’s almost ten years ago, I’m trying to be the least recorded as a leader ever!
ND: But on the other hand as a sideman, you’re incredibly well-recorded …
PD: Well that’s my thing, I could make records all the time I guess but I played on – I wouldn’t even know where to start counting – there are about 50 records that I could unreservedly recommend to people to listen to that have my playing on them. I worked as a freelance sideman for so long in Toronto that I never really got that leader mentality. I worked as musical director jobs and that sort of thing but this project was just one of those things that popped into my mind and before I could even start thinking about all the reasons why if wouldn’t be possible, I was well underway!
If you’re looking at recording a 35 minute piece of contemporary art music for a 40 piece band, you wouldn’t have to think too hard to find reasons why not to do it. But I’m sure glad that I hung in there, it was well worth it – I’m 45 years old, I joined the union when I was 16 and so 29 years into my career here I am …
ND: It’s funny this morning I was just thinking about the first time I heard your name, I started doing this very radio show back in 1986 at the old location of Coop Radio and you had recorded a cart for Coop Radio that I think I can still paraphrase as “when I’m at home I’m either practicing or listening to Coop Radio” and then you went off on some great long saxophone cadenza and I thought that sounds great, gotta hear more of this. And you must have been all of 19 …
PD: Exactly, I did that for Les [Szabo] who used to do The Joint is Jumping [live from the Classical Joint] which I could get in Qualicum if I put my arm out at a 38 degree angle and held a wire coat hanger …
ND: and you probably still can … so how’s life in Qualicum Beach [on Vancouver Island] these days?
PD: Pretty nice, it’s kind of a sleepy town, it comes and goes – right now not so much time on the road but I’m enjoying that too, I’ve got a big two and a half acre yard and there’s always something to do out there. we have a big vegetable garden and we’re trying to eat out of the garden twelve months a year (ed note: Changing Seasons?).
ND: One of the things on my list (someday) is to come over to the Music and Culinary Arts Festival that you put on every year – is it on again for this year?
PD: We’re trying to decide that right now – it looks like it’s going to be a pretty busy summer playing-wise so we’ll see. Last year I did a few private camps for adult musicians that went really well, it was really fun. We’ll probably do some version of it but two years ago, we did a month straight with about 25 concerts, had a hundred and twenty students and it was a big undertaking. Looking after the administration myself, it’s a lot of work but a lot of fun, sure ate well though….
ND: Were you involved with the Bamfield Festival as well? Some friends of mine went up to that and were talking about how wonderful it was – the setting and the integration between the chamber music and the jazz, the feeling that there no musical borders there at all, all put together so wonderfully.
PD: It worked well this year, more so than in previous years – right from the beginning this year, people were making plans to work together and I wrote an expansion of a piece that I’d written a few years ago that had almost everybody, I think about 25 out of 28 musicians, that was pretty fun. But it’s an amazing spot, I just love the west coast! I go out to Bamfield and I would live there …
ND: It sounds like there are more and more musicians who are based on Vancouver Island who travel for work but love to stay there, bassist Ken Lister who’s on the recording and a bunch of other folks …
PD: There are lots of well-known people that live on Vancouver Island but travel for work.
ND: So what’s upcoming on your calendar?
PD: I’m playing in Vancouver with my good buddy [drummer] Alan Jones and a bass player from Portland named Tom Wakeling (Wednesday Dec 7th at the Cellar also with Chris Gestrin, Brad Turner, and Steve Kaldestad) and Friday/Saturday (December 9/10) I’ll be at the Cellar again with my Great Canadian Songbook project (with Jillian Lebeck, Vince Mai, Dave Sikula, Andre Lachance and Joe Poole).
ND: Wonderful stuff, I know quite a few people who couldn’t get into the CBC show at the Jazz Festival last year because it was so packed so it’ll be great to have another opportunity to hear it live.
The Changing Seasons Suite really does mark a new stage in Phil Dwyer‘s development as an artist, an ambitious work that totally delivers on its promise. As Phil Dwyer has described it, the theme running through the composition is change. “Changing weather, changing climatic conditions, the changing economic structure of the world and some big changes in my own life. It’s a call to acknowledge the fact of all these changes taking place and a query as to what are we going to do about it.”
In this case at the very least, the change is for the good.
This interview was condensed and edited from an interview on The A-Trane Radio Program recorded on Nov 4th 2011.
The full interview with excerpts from movements Spring and Winter can be heard here:
The 2011 Vancouver Jazz Festival performance of Phil Dwyer‘s Great Canadian Songbook project is available through CBC’s Concerts on Demand, the full concert in audio and selected performances as video (under the Jazz tab).
As mentioned above, Phil Dwyer will be appearing at the Cellar in early December with two different ensembles, more information available at The Cellar website.
Changing Seasons by the Phil Dwyer Orchestra Featuring Mark Fewer, composed and arranged by Phil Dwyer is now available on the Alma Records label.