Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Conversation with composer/arranger/musician Chelsea McBride

How extraordinary to celebrate a 25th birthday with a concert/CD release of original music of one’s own invention with a 19-piece big band? That occurred last night in Toronto at Lula Lounge for saxophonist/composer/arranger Chelsea McBride’s latest undertaking - The Twilight Fall.

Vancouver’s McBride is a member of an expanding women’s movement that is enriching the Toronto jazz scene. It’s been a long, challenging history for women instrumentalists in a music once governed by patronizing, chauvinistic men. Inclusivity is a result of hard-fought victories dating back decades when saxophonist Jane Fair and bassist Rosemary Galloway fronted their own bands. The late 1980’s and the ascension of bandleader/saxophonist Jane Bunnett began the dismantling of barriers and the break with the “ boys only club”. The lineage of women bandleaders locally is impossible to dismiss: Dr. Kira Payne, Carol Welsman, Colleen Allen, Laila Biali, Brandi Disterheft, Tara Davidson, Elizabeth Shepherd, and, most recently, Alison Young, Rebecca Hennessy, Naomi Higgins, McBride and others.

Thursday past, McBride dropped by CIUT 89.5 fm (The Bill King Show) and we settled in for an hour-long chat.

Bill King: Chelsea, you are working a series of bands – the Socialist Night School, a big band jazz unit – fusion pop band, Chelsea McBride and the Cityscape – The Achromatics, a Latin/soul music nonet – a video game cover band called Koopa Troop and not to long a go you were a graduate of the Humber Bachelor of Music Program. What gives?

Chelsea McBride: Chelsea and the Cityscape is a pop band formed first with a couple classmates. I was looking for a place to play my tunes and I didn’t know what I was going to do at the time. So I called people I trusted and brought them together and said, 'here are songs that don’t make much sense, but they’d be fun to play.' I started the big band after I ran out of school-sanctioned opportunities to workshop my big band writing. Something else I was trying to get into – so I just started my own. The Achromatics is the brainchild of Jay Vasquez, who is a guitarist and vocalist I play with a lot. It’s very much a collective project and the theme of that band is diversity and mixing cultural influences. We come from very different musical backgrounds. The Koopa Troop is the idea of the guitarist in the band, Wilson McLeish. We all dress up as video game characters and play your favourite tunes from classic video games and current video games. Anything nerdy is fair game.

B.K: You are having too much fun. I discovered you from the TD Discovery Series Special Projects initiative. Created by Toronto Downtown Jazz, this encourages the creation, development and presentation of special projects by jazz musicians in the City of Toronto. I was impressed with your writing for big band. Where does this come from?

C.M: I’ve been songwriting a long time and been around music all of my life. I was like nine or 10 and thought I’d try writing. At that time, it was whatever a 10-year-old‘s attempt at writing a pop song is. Not particularly sophisticated or exciting, but that’s what got me into it.

When I was in high school playing saxophone a few years and starting to double instruments, I was getting into “honor bands” - new territory for me. I played in a high school “jazz intensive” at the Vancouver Jazz Festival for three years. I thought about saxophonist Eli Bennett, who is very good - he played in the band for three years - and I thought maybe I should try out. I got in, but, by far, I was the weakest person. I then knew I had to practice and practice.

Playing in that setting allowed me to take what I was working on with songwriting and start writing for large ensemble. I think it was Grade 11 or 12 when I started writing for big band. I was then picked for the national honor band in Grade 12 and I remember flying across the country for my first meeting with Terry Promane (associate professor and jazz coordinator at the University of Toronto) and he explained what was expected and the plan. When he got to the end of his talk, he asked if we had any questions and I said, 'well, I’ve brought this chart in for big band, can we try it?' He did let me try it and it was fine and I decided then I was going to write for big band.

I workshopped some charts with the B-band at Humber under faculty member Mark Promane and he was awesome. Second year, my big band director wasn’t as enthusiastic. It was a huge shame. The entire point of being at school is to learn. I mean if the chart is so terrible and not worth a read, I get that. I got the runaround and it was not fun. I couldn’t get it played in class so I started my own band.

I called 18 people and said, 'let's all get in a room together.' I wanted to hear how it sounded. I wasn’t the only one – you could count them on one hand. It was me and my charts. It’s mostly been that over the history of the Socialist Night School big band. It’s open for others to bring in music too.

B.K: Are there arrangers you draw inspiration from?

C.M: I’ve played so much big band music throughout the later years. At 16 and not playing much big band, it was an interesting place to start. I played a lot of classic Count Basie, Sammy Nestico arrangements. I remember playing a lot of Duke Ellington charts in high school because of the Jazz at Lincoln Centre program. I remember them being really demanding. The clarinet parts of Ellington’s “Diminuendo in Blue,” which is super virtuosic and in a high register, I couldn’t play most of the notes at that age. Being assigned that music and told to play was a great way to get good fast.

I was also getting introduced to composers/arrangers Maria Schneider and Daniel Jamieson, who I ended up studying with and working for. We played music from the Jazz Institute in Chicago, then run by Nicole Mitchell when I was in it. I discovered arrangers Bob Brookmeyer and Vancouver’s Darcy James Argue, who became somewhere between influence and hero for me.

B.K: How did you read his charts? They are so complex.

C.M: His charts are so impeccable. He’s so focused on the copy side of it. Just because it’s clear and easy to read doesn’t make it any easier to play. My band will say this about my charts as well. It looks hard on paper but easier to play.

B.K: The concept of your new big band album, The Twilight Fall?

C.M: It’s about this odyssey – the life cycle of you. It’s the story of your life – the dreamland you may inhabit the rest of your life. It started as commuter dreams. What happens when you fall asleep on a long train ride. This is you re-experiencing everything you’ve lived.

B.K: What about the recording process?

C.M: When we were in mixing and recording, I found myself conducting myself – trying to remember all of the cues – the parts – the long score. I must have a visual association to this music. I must see what the measures look like as they pass.

B.K: Your dad was in radio
C.M: He’s been in the business, I think, 30 years. He was on the radio when I was very young. He was morning man at z95.3 in Vancouver. Matthew McBride.

I grew up listening to the music he played on radio. A lot of  '70s and '80s pop music. I remember being quite young and Dad went in to do a blindfold test of five-seconds-a-song and you had to guess what it was and he knew all of them. I thought to myself, of course, my Dad knows everything. He was the kind of guy who would break new artists on the radio. It’s a unique upbringing, for sure. One you don’t realize until you pause and look back.

B.K: What’s his thoughts on your music?

C.M: He says I’m responsible for getting him into jazz. I came into the music through the singers; listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Then it was the saxophonists – Coltrane – Charlie Parker – Lester Young; because I listened to the Basie band.
My parents are super supportive and enthusiastic about the whole thing. They’ve been following me through this journey.

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