Was J.S. Bach a proto-jazzman?
According to cellist-composer-arranger Harold Birston’s program notes for Friday’s Semiahmoo Strings concert, Classics and Classic Jazz ( June 8, 7:30 p.m., Peace Portal Alliance Church, 15128 27B Ave.), Bach was a “fearsome” improviser on the keyboard – as was Ludwig van Beethoven.
From what we know of Mozart’s brief, chaotic life, he would have seemed more than at home behind a pair of funky shades in a dimly lit jazz cellar, while harpsichordists and bassists of the Baroque era ‘faked’ their parts, like many a notable jazz sideman, from charts that were little more than sketched chord progressions.
All joking aside, the concert – in which Harold and his wife, Semiahmoo Strings conductor and co-founder Carla Birston, have three major professional jazz talents “sitting in” with their young charges – is typical of their enlightened ‘outside the box’ approach to the musical development of budding talents.
And there’s every evidence their classically trained students will reap the benefits of a master class in musicality from playing in company with brilliant and highly respected jazz pianist/composer Miles Black, gifted Juno-nominated bassist, composer and bandleader, Jodi Proznick (her dad Dave is fondly regarded in the community for his many years as a jazz educator at Semiahmoo Secondary) and supremely tasteful and immensely experienced drummer and percussionist Craig Scott.
“I think Miles and Jodi and Craig are the best jazz players in North America,” Carla said, noting that we are all lucky they have maintained a strong Surrey connection over the years, and are happy to return for concerts like this.
Black will also debut an original composition with the Strings, Ballad of the True North.
“Miles is in incredible demand – I don’t know how many hundreds of CDs he’s on. He’s the best piano player I’ve heard – his playing is like silk,” said Carla.
Proznick and Scott’s playing is also highly inspiring, she said.
“And they’re all so understanding – they give me ideas and they’re so helpful. They know that I’m classically-trained and that jazz is not my forte.”
The first, stunningly successful, meeting of the Semiahmoo Strings and the musicians took place some five years ago – before most of the current musicians in the youth ensemble had joined or hit their stride as musicians, Harold and Carla said.
One of the original musicians, Andy Chien (now a UBC grad) will return to play his electric guitar role in Gordon Goodwin’s detective theme-inspired The Jazz Police.
But the current crop of Semiahmoo Strings players also seem to have taken to an idiom that is as much about ‘feel’ as interpreting written notation, the Birstons added.
“The last time they played with us, Kierah Raymond (violin soloist and co-concertmaster for the Strings) was about 10 or 11,” they said.
Now she’s playing, as featured soloist in the Suite Francaise (a tribute to Gallic jazz violinists), a transcription of a Stephane Grappelli solo on Rodgers and Hart’s This Can’t Be Love.
“But she’s taking to it – it’s so natural for her,” said Carla, noting that Raymond’s well-known fiddling expertise makes the Jean-Luc Ponty piece Old Country/Jig a breeze for her.
“The other night, at rehearsal, I saw her tapping her leg on the two and four during one of the jazz pieces. That’s not usual for a classical musician, but she’s just so keen to learn.”
Members of the Strings who travelled down to Seattle together to see co-concertmaster Lucy Wang’s guest appearance with the Northwest Symphony were amusing themselves by singing their harmonized parts of a transcription of saxophonist Paul Desmond’s solo on Take Five – from memory.
“That’s about 100 bars and they sang it straight through,” said Harold. “I can’t do that – it put me to shame.”
Not that Harold – who as cellist has demonstrated his versatility in both classical and jazz settings – has any reason to be ashamed about this concert.
In addition to doing most of the arrangements for the Strings, he is also contributing two of his original compositions, Theme and Variations and the jazz ballad, Right Where We Should Be – which will be interpreted by Semiahmoo Strings cellist Michaela Yoon.
“Michaela is really blessed and she does a beautiful job,” he said.
Samuel Hung, concertmaster of the feeder Demi-Semiahmoo Strings group, will also be highlighted on conga drums and percussion with Scott in the Latin-flavoured La Almeja Pequena, the Birstons said.
It’s not all about jazz. The concert, which literally runs the gamut from Mozart’s Divertimento No. 1 in D Major to Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing, also showcases some of the range of the young musicians in stylistically challenging material such as the dance episodes from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo to Hans Zimmer’s theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
The Demi-Semiahmoos will also demonstrate their growing capabilities with an excerpt from Handel’s Water Music and the tango La Cumparsita.
Tickets ($18, $10 students and seniors) are available from Tapestry Music or by calling 604-538-1460.