Calgary-born National Jazz Orchestra of Canada will feature elite musicians and composers from across the country


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When Kodi Hutchinson was a young jazz bassist studying at the Banff Center in the 1990s, his mentor Hugh Fraser dreamed of starting a national jazz orchestra.

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Fraser, a trombonist and Juno-winning pianist, led the jazz program at the Banff Center at the time. He has also led big band workshops across Canada.

“He would go from town to town with the goal of finding the best players in each market,” says Hutchinson. “In Europe, they had all these radio orchestras in all the countries. There were all these nationally funded radio orchestras in Europe and he wanted to do this in Canada.

Fraser tried to find funding for the project throughout the 1990s, but it never took off. About five years ago, Hutchinson decided to take up the mantle and began his own plans for a national jazz orchestra. In 2018 Fraser came to Calgary to perform at the JazzYYC festival. He told his former protege that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Fraser died in 2020 before approvals were in place for grants that would eventually lead to the National Jazz Orchestra of Canada’s next premiere performance on April 28. But Hutchinson was at least able to tell him plans were afoot.

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“What he did with the Banff Center was bring Canadian players together,” says Hutchinson, who is also artistic director of JazzYYC. “If you talk to players over 35 in Canada, most of them met at the Banff Centre. Most of them met in this jazz program. That’s where they had their contacts. Many have found their way to the United States playing with major players because of this.

The April 28 performance at the Jack Singer Concert Hall has spanned years and will bring together musicians and composers from across the country, creating an ambitious and unprecedented project that will celebrate the elite of the genre.

Fraser will be honored through the work of Jaelem Bhate, British Columbia conductor and conductor and winner of the Hugh Fraser Emerging Composer Award. Bhate’s composition is one of nine new works the orchestra will perform that evening by seven composers, including Christine Jensen.

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Jensen, a Juno award-winning big band leader, also leads the project as artistic director. The 18-piece orchestra will also perform traditional works written by a Canadian composer or known to be performed by Canadian musicians.

“In any music scene, everything is pretty fragmented,” says Hutchinson. “People do their own thing. There are very different scenes in every part of the country. If you listen to music in Vancouver versus Toronto versus Calgary versus Montreal, there are different stages with different sounds and actors with different approaches. For me, it’s a really cool way to connect these sounds and celebrate these similarities and differences.

Even before the musicians were selected, Arts Commons VP of Programming Jennifer Johnson signed the arts organization as a presenting partner, giving the orchestra the Jack Singer Concert Hall for the performance. , which will be saved for future release.

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Hutchinson set up an advisory board to choose musicians and composers. Seventy composers from across Canada applied. About half of the group was selected by the committee, the others applied for a position. Needless to say, there was far more interest than there were seats in the National Jazz Orchestra. But Hutchinson says the plan is to have a three-year lifespan for this iteration before opening it up again to new members.

While an accomplished jazz bassist, Hutchinson himself does not play in the orchestra. But it has a who’s-who of hot jazz players from all over the country. This includes Grammy-nominated Toronto guitarist Matthew Stevens, who has worked with Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lynne Carrington and Quincy Jones. Montreal/New York trumpeter Rachel Therrien won the 2015 TD Jazz Grand Prize at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Toronto baritone saxophonist Shirantha Beddage has two Juno nominations and one of her compositions was used in the television series Fargo.

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Alberta’s lone representative is Calgary’s Andre Wickenheiser, who Hutchinson says “stands among the best in Canada” on trumpet.

“He’s a very versatile player,” says Hutchinson. “The thing with this band, because it’s the first iteration and the music comes from multiple composers, the players on stage have to be able to cover a lot of range. They have to be able to swing like the old-fashioned game, they have to be able to play very modern and contemporary music. This requires players with a fairly wide range of abilities.

For now, the only performance set in stone for the orchestra is its April 28 debut. A documentary will also be shot on the project during rehearsals at the Jack Singer. But Hutchinson says the goal is to give the orchestra an international profile. A Montreal-based agent was enlisted to get more shows. Following the April 28 performance, Hutchinson will travel to Germany for jazzahead!, the world’s largest jazz conference in hopes of generating interest in “markets that really appreciate and love this music.”

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For Wickenheiser, a busy musician and instructor who recently played on the Calgary Esteban Herrera Quintet’s Juno-nominated album The Prophet, the orchestra is a chance to play with some of his jazz heroes and be a part of a greater celebration of Canadian talent.

“Canada has quite a rich history of amazing jazz musicians like Oscar Peterson, Maynard Ferguson, Lenny Breau,” he says. “It’s just good to showcase the talent here. In the international jazz scene, I don’t think people realize the talent. But there are some really, really amazing musicians. Showcasing all aspects of musical talent – ​​with compositions and performances – is going to be amazing to share with the world.

The National Jazz Orchestra of Canada will perform April 28 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. The show kicks off JazzYYC’s International Jazz Days festival, which runs from April 28 to May 1. in various places. Visit and for more information.

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Henry R. Wright