For its year-end recital this spring, the Dalhousie Jazz Ensemble tapped into the spirit of the times to produce an online video performance instead of a live event.
Released on YouTube this week, the surprise for many may be not in how the project was made but more in how it turned out to be a great success. In many respects, the project helped students hold on to a sense of community with one another when they needed it most.
And it’s that bond that shines in the final recital.
“I was really happy with the outcome," says saxophonist Karen Buckle. “It was not something I would have done had there not been COVID,”
“Learning how to use a mixer, mic myself as a saxophonist, pass that through Zoom and be able to record myself and contribute that way; I don't think I would have learned that outside of this context."
The recital video, which is about 20 minutes long and can be viewed in full at the bottom of this article, features three pieces in contrasting styles:
Ensemble director Chris Mitchell’s own instrumental A Fine Day opens with guest drummer Dave Burton, a veteran of the professional music scene, holding down a reggae groove with student bassist Aidan Zann-Roland, as the horn section creates lush harmonies on top. Dropping down to a hushed accompaniment for bass solos by Zann-Roland and Martin Goodlad, the band soars back into action with a grand swing feel before solos by trombonist Dylan Hay and guitarist Eli Robichaud carry the piece to the conclusion with a final chorus.
Next up is Are We There Yet by composer Lyle Mays (of Pat Metheny Group fame). Starting with a quiet intro of just guitar and drums, the bass and low horns soon follow, assembling a dense, syncopated groove. The highlight is a dramatic alto saxophone solo by Buckle, who builds the energy of the tune to a climactic collective improvised conclusion.
Classic jazz standard Fly Me to the Moon fills out the set, featuring guest vocalist Joey Kitson, of the Atlantic Celtic super-group Rawlins Cross, in an intergenerational collaboration with his son Julien Kitson on tenor saxophone. Mitchell's arrangement sizzles with big-band energy, as coordinated swells in the horns and saxophones smooth the transition of energy between vocal and instrumental sections.
As in other programs, music students spent the fall semester working entirely online — developing their skills not just in performance but also in-home recording technology.
This reality raised an important question for the ensemble: Is self-isolation incompatible with the nature of jazz, an art form built upon collaboration, improvisation, and self-expression in a shared space?
Turns out, it ain't necessarily so.
“The skillset around recording, and how to streamline that kind of a process, I think is really valuable, because that can apply to lots of different situations,” explains Hay, the trombonist.
The pressure was a little more evenly distributed with this format, as well, explains Kitson, the saxophonist. “It wasn't as stressful as it would have been as a live recital. It was more laid back.”
Weaving it all together
But how did it all come together? Behind the scenes, Mitchell had to work a lot of magic.
First, rhythm section members recorded their takes individually on their home-recording setups and submitted the recordings to be mixed by Mitchell, who assembled them into a backing track for the rest of the performers to play along with. Many performers recorded on their phones out of necessity but were able, with coaching, to get good quality takes regardless. Mitchell then painstakingly assembled all recordings into a finished audio file and returned it to the students, who recorded videos of themselves playing for the final product.
Given the many steps involved, the end result, which features the players weaving in and out of view along with their parts, feels surprisingly natural.
“Kudos to Chris,” exclaims Kitson. “He made it sound awesome.”
Upsides of the downsides
While Mitchell was pleased with the outcome, he says working within digital limitations always leaves something to be desired.
“Although this process resulted in a successful video project, the online format for ensemble participation and applied lessons will never come close to the live performance experience.”
Still, he says there were upsides.
“I feel that students will . . . be savvier with their use of technology allowing them to potentially have a more visible high quality online presence,” he says.
To the players, it was impossible to miss the difference between the experience of making the video and the end product, but it was well worth it.
“There is a sense of like, ok, we are in this 'alone together,'” Hay explained, “you're really, really delaying the gratification. When you see the video especially, and you see everyone playing and we're all like, pretty much in our bedrooms... there is this kind of connection that way, just knowing that we were really in that all together, even if it didn't always feel like it.”
Watch the full recital below:
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