Saturday, June 18, 2011

Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music 2011

Lake Louise hike, photo by Veronika Vitova

Reading session with Dave Douglas
Singing Bach Chorales at the top of Tunnel Mountain

Wow. What an experience. I just returned from three weeks in the Canadian Rockies at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. The workshop was completely inspiring, exhilarating, challenging, exhausting, intense, and joyous. I don't know where to begin--the facilities, faculty, programing, experiences with musicians from all over the world, and natural landscape were all equally amazing.

View from my room!
Elk on campus


The workshop was at the Banff Centre, an incredible multi-discipline arts complex located in Banff National Park, surrounded on all sides by panoramic views of forest and mountains. We shared the facility with writers, playwrights, audio engineers, mathematicians, and visual artists. The music facilities were insane--they included a night club that booked four workshop bands a night, two theaters, a recital hall, dozens of individual practicing cabins with in-tune pianos, several ensemble rooms with drum kits and Steinway and Yamaha grand pianos, bistro for after-hours jam sessions, full blown recording studio, and a music library with an extensive collection of scores, books, CDs, and records. We lived in a nice hotel and the food was awesome.

Practice cabins
Practice cabin

Banff Centre from Tunnel Mountain
Dining hall

Pat, Jeremy, and Hugh (Australia) in the club
Matiss (Latvia) in the studio

65 musicians from all over the world participated in the workshop--I worked with musicians from Canada, U.S., Belgium, Australia, South Korea, Ireland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Argentina, U.K, Italy, Israel, and Latvia. Most were in their 20s and are working professionals or music majors in college. Five preformed bands participated--The Vampires from Sydney, Australia, Dugtrio from Eastman School of Music, Pugs and Crows from Vancouver, East West from Montreal, and The Ungwon Hahn Trio from Seoul, South Korea.

Ungwon Hahn Trio (South Korea)
Veronkia and Martin (Czech Rep)

Eden and Or (Israel)
Kyla (Montreal, CA) and Annie (Boulder, CO)

The programming and schedule was much more intensive than I was expecting--usually 16-18 hour days including masterclasses, rehearsals, and performances--and time to practice and/or compose if I was lucky. It was often hard to carve out time for meals! Here is a typical weekday schedule for participants--as you may notice many activities overlap:

8:00-10:00 Breakfast/Practice
10:00-12:00 Assigned Ensembles
12:00-1:30 Lunch/Rehearsals for club sets/recording
1:30-5:00 Master classes
5:00-7:00 Dinner/Rehearsals for club sets/recording
6:30-11:00 Recording sessions in the studio
7:00-8:30 Masterclass/Composition Workshop
8:00-11:00 Sets in the club
8:30-12:00 Practice/Rehearsals for club sets/recording
10:00-2:00AM After hours jam session in the bistro
11:00-3:00AM Late night recording sessions in the studio
2:00AM-?? Late night ping-pong session with Australians

We had Sundays off, so most of us went hiking. We all went hiked Sulphur Mountain, Tunnel Mountain, and hiked around Lake Louise (which was still mostly frozen). The Sulphur Mountain hike was about started at about 5,000 ft and the summit was at 8,000. This proved challenging as the last mile of the hike was all snow, and us sea-level folks weren't accustomed to the thin mountain air.

View of Banff from the summit of Sulphur Mnt. Not a postcard! Photo by Veronika Vitova

Lake Louise

The other side of Lake Louise

The faculty were world renowned jazz artists who were inspiring to listen to and be around. The faculty changed every week except for Dave Douglas who ran the program for the three weeks. In many ways, this workshop is superior to any music school/conservatory in the world. Dave's passion, vision, and relentless work ethic is what made this program so magical--he has my eternal gratitude.

Faculty for Week One:
Donny McCaslin--saxophone, Robin Eubanks--trombone, Geoff Keezer--piano, Anthony Wilson--guitar, Matt Brewer--bass, Clarence Penn--drums

  • Dave Douglas Reading Sessions. Dave was editing charts for publication from his band in the 90s with Chris Potter, James Genus, and Ben Perowsky. I had the opportunity to read through these charts three times a week with faculty members including Dave. (He likes giving each player a concert pitch score--transposing up a ninth or from bass clef on sight kicked my butt.)
  • Playing in a combo coached by Robin Eubanks. We worked on a couple of his new compositions for the SF Jazz Collective that haven't been recorded yet.
  • Anthony Wilson's Workshop Composition: Uncovering and Revealing the Already Complete Idea was a refreshingly simple, organic, and non-intimidating approach to composition. He guided us through listening to and transcribing our own inner musical ideas.
  • Matt Brewer's Workshop: Odd Meters, Folklore, and Danceability focused on the link in the brain between rhythm and movement. Many of the time-signatures that jazz musicians perceive as difficult, are common dance rhythms in other cultures. We listened to "odd-meter" music from Camaroon, Nigeria, Iran, Morocco, and Bulgaria and engaged rhythmically with it by stomping and clapping. He recommended working with any type of percussion instrument. He also suggested that when working on a difficult time signature, find a folk music example of it, find the underlying clave, and make it feel danceable.
  • Dave's weekly composition workshop yielded close to 100 new compositions by participants.
  • The Ungwon Hahn Trio featuring Ungwon on drums EunHye Oh on piano, Jaekon Joen on bass from Seoul, South Korea gave an inspired energetic performance in the club--they left the faculty grinning and speechless during their coaching session. Their original music is dynamic, catchy, interactive, and grooving. I will post a recording or two with their permission
  • The faculty concert! Inspired and burning.

Faculty concert

Faculty for Week Two:
Steve Lehman--saxophone, Eyvind Kang--viola, Myra Melford--piano, Brandon Ross--guitar, Anthony Cox--bass, Jerry Granelli--drums, Clarence Penn--drums

One of my fellow participants Tilman Robinson, a fantastic composer and trombonist from Australia, summed up the change in vibe very well: "Where Week 1 had been a collection of musicians mainly from New York all intent on driving jazz bursting with intensity and complexity, Week 2 offered a faculty more intent on free and collective improvisation."

Highlights of Week Two:

  • Myra Melford led a workshop on collective group improvisation strategies and led a few sessions of John Zorn's Cobra.
  • I put together and performed in the club with a quintet with (my Banff roommate) Taylor Barnett from VA on trumpet, Annie Booth from CO on piano, Hugh Stuckey from Melbourne, Australia on guitar, Pat Reid from Montreal/Brooklyn on bass, and Ungwon Hahn from South Korea on drums. We played all original music--much of which was written at Banff and it was a blast!

  •  I was blown away by the music of saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman. His music is the most rhythmically complex jazz I have ever heard, but I was most stunned by how he incorporated spectral harmony into improved jazz. He used quarter-tones in his playing and compositions to closely approximate upper harmonics, and orchestrated pieces based on the timbre of a specific instruments. The quarter-tone tunings sounded unfamiliar, but still harmonically resonant. This spectral harmony is featured on his octet CD, Travail, Transformation, and Flow.
  • Playing in Clarence Penn's ensemble. Clarence kicked our asses (in a very constructive way). He had us sight-read some extremely challenging music everyday, gave us some equally difficult rhythmic exercises and concepts, and didn't take any BS in our playing. He was very intense, engaged, and nurturing at the same time. It was a very challenging, but I'm so thankful for the experience.

Dave Douglas, Steve Lehman, Jerry Granelli, Eyvind Kang, and Clarence Penn
Cobra session with Myra Melford

Faculty for Week Three:
Kneebody! Shane Endsley--trumpet, Ben Wendell--saxophone, Adam Benjamin--keyboards, Kaveh Rastegar--bass, Nate Wood--drums

What a way to finish! I had never checked out Kneebody before, and was totally floored. I highly recommend checking out their website--you can stream a lot of their music for free. Their music is funky, angular, and tight; and the instrumental virtuosity is stunning. Kneebody has an elaborate musical cueing system which allows them to change the groove, meter, instrumentation, tempo, key etc. with short musical fragments. The cues are subtle and difficult to detect--even when you know they're happening. This keeps each performance totally fresh and exciting.

These guys are only a few years older than us, and they felt like our fun big brothers. They hung out and jammed with us much more than the other faculty members. The vibe was super positive and their masterclasses on rhythm and careers in music were practical and insightful.

Other highlights:
  • Rehearsing performing with the "Frontier Justice" big band led by Dave. We played his original music and compositions by participants.
  • Hiking up to the top of Tunnel Mountain to sing Bach chorales.
  • Recording in the studio with trombonist Tim Shneier (who's doing his masters at NEC). We recorded an original of Tim's and one of mine. I will post the recording soon with his permission.
  • Watching Nate Wood play drums with one hand, and electric bass with the other! He has done entire Kneebody shows like that when Kaveh wasn't available. Total genius.
  • Performing a new piece by Tyson Kerr on bass clarinet in the recital hall. Tyson is a fantastic pianist, accordionist, vocalist, and composer from Toronto.
  • The Vampires from Sydney, Australia hosted a wicked jam session.
  • Friday and Saturday night parties! We all hung out the brewpub in town on Friday night, and on Saturday night, some folks put together a sweet 70s and 80s cover band for our final blowout party/jam session in the bistro.

Nate Wood playing bass and drums

Kneebody jamming with us on the last night

I returned to Seattle eager to bring home the inspirations, materials, and supportive community atmosphere to my colleagues, students, friends, and family. I know how to take my practice of music to the next level and I can't wait to travel and collaborate with my new friends from all over the globe. Big thanks to TD Bank and Coca-Cola Canada for supporting this program through generous scholarships.

Frontier Justice Big Band featuring Dave Douglas
Dave enjoying his new copy of Steve Treseler's Resonance

1 comment: