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Happily Busy, Al Kay, Head of Brass Department

Humber instrumental and vocal performers

Just about every gig that I have done over the last 38 years of my career has had some sort of a Humber connection.

Humber Music has turned out so many great instrumental and vocal performers, composers, arrangers, music and recording producers, music software developers, educators, clinicians and other music industry folk that it is literally hard not to bump into one in any given professional situation.

One of the main reasons for our success in graduating top flight music students is our superb faculty—who have always stayed current with the latest musical styles, played the best gigs with the best players, composed, arranged and recorded on countless CDs, TV shows and films. They have, without exception, tried their best to pass along their artistic passion to our students.

I’ve been reminded of Humber’s overwhelming presence on the Toronto music scene this January, as I’ve been performing this month with a number of my Humber faculty colleagues and fellow alumni in three world-class big bands. My first gig of the New Year—occurring at Humber’s state-of-the-art studio and engineered by our very own Ian Terry—was recording the follow-up CD to John McLeod’s Rex Hotel Orchestra’s 2011 Juno Award winning CD, Our First Set. Not only have John and I been teaching at Humber for many years, we were also students together back in the early 1970s when Humber’s was the only jazz program in Canada. At any rate, at that early January session, the orchestra recorded 11 tunes in 6 hours (which must be some kind of a record), but as the band was populated by many of Toronto’s best players (including Humber alumni and current teachers John Johnson, Bob Leonard, Ted Warren, Joey Goldstein, Jason Logue, Brian O’Kane, John Challoner and Colin Murray) perhaps the brevity of the session is no surprise. John’s cornet and flugelhorn playing, as well as his composing has always been first-rate, but he is truly one of the few veteran arrangers who manages to keep the “Toronto Sound” alive! John and his orchestra play the last Monday of every month at Toronto’s Rex Hotel…so come out and hear some great music!

For the last few years, I’ve played lead trombone in Kirk MacDonald’s Jazz Orchestra; another all-star ensemble rich with Humber alumni and current educators. MacDonald’s group is dedicated to performing his original compositions as arranged by leading Canadian and U.S. writers.

Kirk, a full-time professor in Humber’s music department, has recorded many CDs over the years, garnering numerous awards for his wonderful saxophone playing and composing. During the second week of January, we performed again at the Rex Hotel for three nights, playing the beautiful, intense and challenging music featured on the orchestra’s last two (Humber Studio recorded) CDs: Deep Shadows and Family Suite. An enthusiastic audience packed the club every night to hear superb solos from Kirk, Pat LaBarbera, Nancy Walker, Barry Romberg, Kelsley Grant, Neil Swainson and so many other great players in the band. 

A Saturday night tribute concert to the late, great Dizzy Gillespie—in front of a sold-out Koerner Hall audience—was yet another musical highlight of what has been a January to remember! Although Gillespie is no longer with us, of course, his iconic horn, with it skyward pointed bell, made the gig! Organized by Canadian trumpet virtuoso Jens Lindemann, the tribute concert featured one of the greatest trumpet players of all time: Doc Severinsen along with top American trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, Jens and the Yamaha All-Star Big Band.

Doc is 85 years old, but still has the great sense of humour, high notes and sound that made him famous! Jens was in top form as well, matching the energy of Doc’s high notes and demonstrating his exquisite sound and fluent technique on a few feature tunes. Wycliffe is an amazing musician; his New Orleans inspired singing, trombone, trumpet and slide trumpet playing have such style and virtuosity that is was a real pleasure to hear him play.

I had the opportunity to write a new chart on Gillespie’s “Con Alma” for this concert that featured Wycliffe, the great trombone soloist Alain Trudel and myself. After a few weeks of working on the chart on the basement computer, it was great to hear it performed live and so beautifully. The featured big band was once again an all-star band of Humber connections that included Steve McDade, Mike Downes, Ted Warren, Steve Butterworth, Andy Ballantyne, John Johnson, and Bob Leonard.

It certainly has been a fun month so far! All three gigs were challenging, in different ways, but extremely rewarding musically. Playing great music with wonderful colleagues and guest artists is why we smile at the end of the night…and then we remember that we might just get paid for it too!