Acclaimed saxophonist/composer/bandleader Phil Dwyer terms Changing Seasons "my most ambitious project yet, without a doubt." That's saying something, given a resume full of examples of his genuinely adventurous creative spirit.
Changing Seasons is a compelling violin concerto that bridges the jazz and classical worlds in seamless fashion. Premiered in November 2010 at McGill University, it is now destined to find a wider international audience with the October release of its recording on ALMA Records.
Changing Seasons is inspired by John Coltrane as much as Vivaldi, and the combination of a large band with horns and a massed string section integrates these diverse musical elements in a truly fresh and accessible way. The work began as a collaboration between Dwyer and internationally renowned violin virtuoso Mark Fewer.
"I've worked with Mark a lot, and he has a good intuitive understanding of what I'm trying to do," says Phil. "I approached him about writing a piece for him, and he loved it. Mark is a get things done kind of a guy, and through various channels we were able to procure a sum to commission the music and schedule a performance at the Schulich School of Music, where Mark is chair of the string department."
As Changing Seasons took shape, so did Dwyer's determination to have the work recorded. "I soon had my heart set on that. I wanted it to be done in a nice recording room with great players that I got to pick. The biggest and most important thing that happens in this creative process is hearing the composition performed by a really crack band."
Helping fulfill this desire was Peter Cardinali, head of highly respected independent jazz label ALMA Records. He and Dwyer have a close working relationship dating back two decades. Phil notes, "Peter's the record company person I feel closest to. I've played on five records for ALMA [including two albums in the famed One Take series] and he knows a lot about writing for and producing orchestras." Upon hearing a tape of the McGill performance of Changing Seasons, Cardinali immediately jumped on board. "We are a music first label," he says. "I knew it'd be difficult to do, logistically and financially, but we figured out a way."
Dwyer and Mark Fewer assembled a cast list of some of the very best jazz and classical musicians in North America. "For brass players, we got jazz guys who also had orchestral experience," says Phil. The 17-piece band included such Canadian jazz greats as trombonists Alistair Kay and Ian McDougall and alto saxophonist P.J. Perry ("the godfather of Canadian saxophonists," as Dwyer terms him). Imported from the U.S. was lead trumpet player Walter White, an alumnus of Maynard Ferguson's band and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. "When you play first trumpet in Wynton Marsalis' orchestra, you've got to have chops," says Phil, and White's playing shines on Changing Seasons.
Fewer's past stint as concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra meant he knew the best classical musicians in town, while the recording's concertmaster, Mark Ferris brought in players from the Vancouver Opera Orchestra for the 21-piece string section. Dwyer is thrilled with the results. "The music was really difficult and we didn't have long to record it, but it was one of the best string sessions I've ever been on with a uniformly excellent level of musicianship."
The big band and strings were recorded in one day each at state of the art Vancouver recording studio The Factory, live off the floor and under the watchful eyes and ears of producer Cardinali. "The string orchestra was just tremendous, and so enthusiastic," praises Peter. "One of the cellists threw a BBQ party for everyone at his house after!" With Fewer's versatile and virtuosic violin playing at the helm, the musical results of these sessions are nothing less than spectacular. "The recording we now have is highly representative of what I hoped to achieve," says Dwyer, with justified pride.
The theme running through the composition is change, as its creator explains. "Changing weather, changing climatic conditions, the changing economic structure of the world, and some big changes in my own life," says Phil. "It is a call to acknowledge the fact of all these changes taking place and a query as to what are we going to do about it." Reflection on such themes is certainly given a potent soundtrack by Changing Seasons.
As Cardinali says, "there is not much brave new music being written. I see this as very appealing for orchestras around the world." Dwyer concurs. "International interest in this work is already being generated. In Europe there are groups with big bands and string orchestra always looking for programming. We can tour the piece with five key people and play it with any professional level group."
Dwyer's reputation on the jazz scene has long been at the highest level. He is a multiple Juno award winner and nominee (Canada's Grammy equivalent), and has performed with such artists as Kenny Wheeler, Red Rodney, Molly Johnson, Renee Rosnes, and Gino Vannelli. Dwyer's ongoing creative collaboration with New York-based trumpet star Ingrid Jensen has included successful tours of Europe and Mexico, and he has toured and recorded extensively with drummer Alan Jones. His compositions have been commissioned and recorded by the Gryphon Trio, Art of Time Ensemble, CBC Orchestra, and many others.
Now, with Changing Seasons, he has created a genuine tour de force.