Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra: Voices – A Musical Heritage

Canadian ensemble merges music from around the world with big band swing and the outcome is notably - perhaps surprisingly - well integrated

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The only anomaly in this masterful sixth album from the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra is the inclusion in the opener of fleeting wordless, uncredited vocals at around 5.50. But given the recording’s title it seems appropriate and the minute’s worth of singing becomes curiously haunting over replays.

The piece Keeyn is based on the Ukranian folk song Oy Chy Toy Keeyn Stoyit. It forms the first part of John Stetch’s suite The Parallel Steppes, an 18-minute tour-de-force in three movements. Building to a swirling climax in its last section, Yaseni, it imaginatively merges ethnic allusions and feisty big band swing. 

Trumpeter and conductor Richard Gillis, along with Sasha Boychouk, founded the WJO in 1997 and it is Canada’s first community-based, non-profit professional jazz orchestra.

Voices – A Musical Heritage – a collection of commissions from eight jazz composers – reflects some of Manitoba’s diverse heritage including First Nations, Metis, Ukrainian, Jewish, Chilean, Brazilian, Nigerian and Icelandic. A leap away from the WJO’s previous album Twisting Ways (WJO, 2021) a predominantly vocal and song-based affair, Voices comes much nearer to the territory explored in Maria Schneider’s Our Natural World suite from Data Lords (Artistshare, 2020). 

There are plentiful highlights in this hour-plus odyssey. In trombonist Jeff Presslaff’s The Living Mind, the frenetic urgency of its first part gives way to a more wistful piano-led conclusion. The Latin-based Homenaje by percussionist Rodrigo Muñoz, a homage both to lyricist Victor Jara and to the Cueca, a Chilean folk dance, is an irresistible groove-laden foot-tapper. The chiaroscuro nature of Gillis’s Shadows, imbued with strident brass, is intended to reflect Iceland’s light and dark seasons and its stark landscape. It would be invidious and futile to single out any one of the tunes as outstanding but in addition to possessing their own distinctive flavours, they all meld remarkably well into one homogeneous voice.

Discography
The Parallel Steppes (suite): i: Keeyn; ii: Ochka; iii: Yaseni; Homenaje; The Living Mind; Oriri; Shadows; Choro Para Amazônia; Ishpiming; The Bison Hunt (63.48)
Richard Gillis (cond); Neil Watson (as, ss); Sean Irvine, Connor Derraugh (as); Paul Balcain, Niall Cade, Monica Jones (ts); Lauren Teterenko, Kyle Wedlake (bar); Shane Hicks, Andrew Littleford, Matthew Walden, Richard Gillis (t, flh); Joel Green, Francois Godere, Jeff Presslaff, Jeffrey Acosta (tb); Isabelle Lavoie (btb); Will Bonness (p); Larry Roy (g, elg); Gilles Fournier, Karl Kohut (b); Fabio Ragnelli (d); Victoria Sparks (pc); Marco Castillo, Henry Onwuchekwa (elg, pc); Rodrigo Muñoz (cga, pc). Winnipeg, 20 August, 2021 – 13 July, 2022.
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