"I could not be more proud of the band’s performance" - SJO wraps up season in style
Updated: May 14
by Scott Roos
photos by Deanna Roos of Deanna Roos Photography
This past Saturday, April 29th, on the eve of International Jazz Day, the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra (SJO), alongside composer/arranger/conductor Fred Stride, put on a stunning performance at the Broadway Theatre. The concert was entitled “Pictures at an Exhibition Reimagined”. In front of a near capacity crowd, the band this night was in fine form.
The SJO cycled through two sets of tunes on this particular evening, featuring music composed and/or arranged by Stride. As a composer/arranger, Stride knows how to manipulate the big band genre to his advantage. There’s generous, heaping portions of “sturm und drang” to be sure, but he’s equally capable of writing soft, tender, emotional moments. In the first set, Stride’s affinity for the Basie-esque style of big bands was on full display in his swing rendition of “Oh Canada”. Saskatchewan youth poet laureate Lauren Klassen recited her “Thank You Mr. Douglas” poem prior to the band performing Stride’s song of the same name. The patriotic, emotional journey of “Thank You Mr. Douglas” featured Dru Waltz performing the solo violin parts.
The main event, however, was the SJO playing Stride’s “Pictures at an Exhibition reimagined”. Stride’s interpretation of Mussorgsky’s work was, for the most part, reverent to the original. Jazz as we know it essentially did not exist in 1874 when the original piano composition was penned. Stride did a phenomenal job with reimagining (hence the title) “Pictures” for the big band setting whilst also staying true to the compositions original brevity of emotional depth. For instance, each of the five “Promenades” were set just a little different, featured different parts of the band. Doing this kept the composition fresh, interesting and engaging.
Then, of course, there were some of the more well known elements of Mussorgsky’s work that Stride tackled admirably. Highlights included the haunting “The Old Castle”, the comical “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”, and the bombast of “The Great Gate of Kiev” to name but a few. And, all throughout, the band played Stride’s treatment exquisitely.
As the evening progressed, Stride stood in front of the group, waving his arms passionately as he put the SJO through their paces. It’s evident by watching Stride that this is “not his first rodeo” when it comes to directing a band of this callibre. He’s essentially been doing this sort of thing for decades. He knows what he needs to do to bring out the best in any band he works with. But, at the same time, the band themselves are no slouches. Simply put, under Stride's helpful guidance, the SJO kicked ass and took names. Of course, when you insert players like Regina saxophonist Donny Kennedy and Lloydminster trombone player Ross Ulmer into the group, magic is bound to happen. The trumpet section featured Regina Symphony Orchestra principal trumpet Miles Newman and Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra principal trumpet Terry Heckman… Like… Wow! Drummer Chris Wallace made his debut appearance with the SJO too. Collectively, the SJO lineup on this night looked like a who’s who of quality jazz players in Saskatchewan…
“I loved working with the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra,” Stride explained in a post concert conversation with NSMZ, “They were always professional, creative and willing to go wherever I wanted to go in rehearsals and performance. They obviously took the concert seriously, wanting to play their absolute best, and make some great music happen.”
“Fred’s vast and deep orchestration abilities (he writes a lot of classical and jazz music) combined with the rich ’source’ material of composer Modest Mussorgsky made for some very inspirational ‘content' that the band could then get very excited about,” SJO artistic director Dean McNeill adds, “I could not be more proud of the band’s performance as well. Everyone really gave it their all.”
It should also be pointed out that the Saskatoon Youth Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of Nick Fanner, opened up the evening with an engaging three song set. Sitting in with the band were local saxophonists Gerard Weber and Nathan Degenhart and, while they did add some adult depth and experience to the youthful ensemble, it’s safe to say that this is a band that improves with every performance that they undertake.
Of note on this night were the group’s rhythm section, backstopped by the rhythmic precision of drummer Seraphina Anand. Anand's ability to tackle more eccentric beat patterns is truly a sight to behold whilst bass player Ronin Sawitsky and pianist Jonathan Guan help to hold it all together to give the group a strong foundation. It would be cool to see these three along with a horn or two play some combo tunes (hint hint). Saxophonist Hayden Webb played a fine solo feature on her soprano sax on an arrangement of Oliver Nelson's "I Hope In Time a Change Will Come".
All in all, it’s great to see the next generation of young jazz musicians making humongous strides as they grow their chops within a genre that's, let's face it, challenging to master. Kudos to Fanner for helping to reinvigorate and breathe life back into jazz amongst the youth in our province.
"Most school jazz programs are extracurricular, so the pandemic hit them all pretty hard over the last couple years as they were unable to rehearse regularly, if they were offered at all. This past fall we started the year with seven members and it’s grown steadily since then. I’m really proud of the commitment of these young musicians. They continue to raise the bar as we now turn our attention to a July 5th Jazz Festival performance to wrap up the current season," remarked director Nick Fanner to NSMZ in an email.
The SJO will announce the programming for their 2023/2024 season on July 1st via their website saskatoonjazzorchestra.com. In the meantime, if you are still hungry for more SJO and SYJO performances, they will be performing a free concert in Saskatoon on July 5th. Stay tuned to the SJO website at saskatoonjazzorchestra.com for more details as they emerge.