With the WestCoast Big Band Festival set to return to Surrey, Christian Morrison applauds the diversity of sounds that will be heard this year.
She’s a co-founder and organizer of the fourth annual event, a showcase at Northwood United Church from Friday, Nov. 16 to Sunday, Nov. 18.
For three days, the 350-seat church sanctuary will be filled with 16 bands from around Metro Vancouver, including some that bend and twist the definition of what most people might consider big-band music.
“There’s a big range of big-band music now,” Morrison explained. “A lot of people think of big-band music as that Glenn Miller swing era, and Benny Goodman, that sort of thing, and that’s all there and it’s great and I love it, and there’s a whole crowd that loves that but they’re getting older.
“So in recent years there have been a lot of talented musicians writing more kinds of styles for big bands – taking that instrumentation and saying, ‘What else can I do with it?’ So there’s really a range of repertoire, you know, right from the swing era stuff to jazz, fusion, rock kind of stuff, to pop tune arrangements.”
“They’ve got heavy metal kind of merged into swing merged into funk, electronica, et cetera,” Morrison said, “so it’s fascinating instrumentation that you can do so much with musically. A young man named Mike WT Allen conceived of (Space Elevator) – he’s the director and has written all the music for it, and they’ve just recorded their first album. This is a group of young professional musicians, graduates of the jazz program, who are just getting going in their career, and it’s going to be something very, very different.”
She also conducts Jazz Connexion, which will open the festival’s headline concert on Saturday (Nov. 17). Also featured that night, as closer, is Vancouver Groove Orchestra and its tribute to Hugh Fraser, the Victoria-born jazz musician known for his work as a pianist, trombonist and composer.
The headline concert is the festival’s only ticketed show, at $20 per person, with proceeds going to the Fraser MacPherson Jazz Fund for young jazz musicians. All other performances and daytime jazz-improv workshops are free to attend at the church, at 8855 156th St. in Fleetwood. Complete event details are posted online at westcoastbigbandfestival.com.
The Sunday-afternoon “Festival Finale” will feature The Happiest Big Band on Earth, which promises “an audio-visual big band celebration of Disney for the whole family,” starting at 5 p.m. The Matt Grinke-led band, according to a bio, includes “17 outstanding musicians who are all big fans of Disney.”
Other ensembles at the fest include FAT Jazz, The Other Big Band, Moonliters Big Band, An Accidental Jazz Band, Urbana, Creek Big Big, Inlet Jazz Band, Golden Ears Jazz Band, Impressions, New Westminster & District Jazz Band and Deep Cove Big Band. A “Rising Star” guest artist, Maya Rae, will perform with Morrison’s Jazz Connexion during the festival’s headline concert.
Event organizers note that most of these bands offer year-round rehearsal and performance opportunities for musicians who wish to continue playing big band jazz beyond their secondary or post-secondary school programs.
This year’s festival has been expanded from two to three days.
“It was very well attended last year and we got really positive reaction,” Morrison said. “We had a couple of bands on the waitlist last year, and we investigated whether we could keep the venue for the extra day, and that looked good, so we threw it open to the whole big band community and waited to see how many we would get in, in terms of registrations. We ended up with a couple on the waitlist again, even with the three days, so it’s been really popular to participate in.
“And audience reaction is good, too,” she added. “Last year, in particular, with our headliner, Jill Townsend Jazz Orchestra, the energy there was just incredible – we had a sold-out house. Something like that feeds the organizers to want to do it all again.”
The festival will be held in Surrey for a third year; the inaugural event was held at a venue in Vancouver before event organizers shifted their attention to Northwood for the second year of concerts, in 2016.
“It’s a good space for us, with lots of room for workshops and networking and performing,” Morrison noted. “And the folks at Northwood are so supportive of us. Every year they help, they volunteer and they’re excited to have us there. It’s a great place to be, and they have a history of supporting jazz, with the Jazz Vespers held there on Sunday afternoons, for the past four or five years.”