The Skies Open — Banff 2011

My God, it’s beautiful up here today.

After a week of rain and snow, the skies opened this morning and the sunshine is dazzling on the snow covered peaks. It’s a good day for a run. A few of us plan to run up Sulfur Mountain (update: in Canada they spell it Sulphur. Go figure.), an elevation change of about 2200 feet (update: it was more like 3000 feet of climb).

Last night’s concert was also a high. The faculty this week, in addition to myself, was Donny McCaslin, Robin Eubanks, Anthony Wilson, Geoff Keezer, Matt Brewer, and Clarence Penn. Everyone brought tunes and the chemistry really clicked. The first half, with two participant groups, was also elevated: from Australia, The Vampires; from South Korea, the Ungwon Han Trio. Both groups played with joy, passion and drive.

Every year the focus of the Banff Jazz and Creative Music program changes, based on the particular interests of the new faculty, but also on subtle changes in way music is played and perceived. These changes develop over time. The curriculum here, if there is one, is to deal with the individual musicians in the moment, and what these young musicians play and how they hear is constantly evolving.

A lot of the learning here goes on in simply playing. New discoveries arise in both students and teachers in the wordless exchange. When Robin Eubanks talked about breaking through one door only to find seven more to be explored, it was a universal reminder that learning never ends. Geoff Keezer talked about looking to the music of the masters in order to find meaning in your own way. Even when you encounter ideas developed by McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, or Ahmad Jamal, these ideas are new for you. The goal is to take the lessons of that music and apply them to your own circumstances. That goal changes from year to year based on all the new sounds we hear coming out of young musicians around the world.

Anthony Wilson talked about and practiced “accurately transcribing the music inside yourself that is already complete.” The Composers Workshop yielded almost sixty new pieces that we will continue to refine in the coming weeks.

Donny McCaslin spoke on and demonstrated using melodic and rhythmic motives to create your own material, and how to practice it. Matt Brewer examined the idea of using unusual rhythm and finding parallels in traditional music as well as looking for the danceable factor in any rhythms we encounter. Clarence Penn talked about how to apply all of this to the real world of rehearsals, rent, and trains, boats, and planes. We also hosted Steve Bellamy of Humber College, who was here with the Audio department. Steve started with the most basic components of acoustics and sound, and continued into the latest recording technology.

Participants also created four nights of music in the club, as well as constant jam sessions. As instrumentalists, we all agree that the level gets gradually better every year. Maybe it’s the growth of jazz education programs, maybe it’s that they are standing on the shoulders of giants. But they come armed with new inspirations, new desires and whims, new questions about how to make music better and richer.

If I obsess about Thelonious Monk it’s because I feel there is an enduring value in his music that is relevant to musicians today, no matter the shifting tides of technology and fashion. I likewise harp on part writing and voice leading because the power of Bach applies to the nuts and bolts in everyone’s music, now just as in the past.

In any case a new faculty crew arrives today: Eyvind Kang, Steve Lehman, Brandon Ross, Myra Melford, Anthony Cox, Jerry Granelli, and Clarence Penn who stays for another week of percussion intensive. We’ll see where the new trails lead.