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Jazz icon Rob McConnell was like a musical father to me, Mark Ferguson says

Pianist Mark Ferguson. The veteran Ottawa jazz musician has played on many CDs but at last is putting out his first CD solely under his own name later this month (Jean Levac/ Ottawa Citizen)
Pianist Mark Ferguson. The veteran Ottawa jazz musician has played on many CDs but at last is putting out his first CD solely under his own name later this month (Jean Levac/ Ottawa Citizen)

From the late 1960s to the late 1990s, Toronto-based trombonist and bandleader Rob McConnell and his Boss Brass big band loomed large over the Canadian jazz scene.

The three-time-Grammy-winning ensemble was, in the words of its trumpeter Guido Basso, “the only Canadian jazz band that could cross the border and play the living daylights out of U.S. musicians.”

After almost 30 albums, the band called it quits. McConnell recorded five more albums into the early 2000s. He died in 2010, at the age of 75.

But his memory will live on, thanks to musicians such as Ottawa trombonist, pianist and bandleader Mark Ferguson.

At his Saturday night performance at GigSpace, the intimate 46-seat performance space on Gladstone Avenue, Ferguson will be paying tribute to McConnell, who was something of a mentor to him. Below, Ferguson describes his relationship to McConnell and his music.

Q: Why are you paying tribute to Rob McConnell?

A: Rob was a major influence on me and I consider him to be one of the icons of jazz.

Q: What will your tribute entail?

A: Usually when people pay tribute to him, it’s in the format of a big band concert because arranging music for the Boss Brass is the thing for which Rob is most well-known. On Saturday, we’ll be playing compositions written by Rob as well as a couple of his favourite standards that he played often in small group settings.

Q: What were your first contacts with McConnell’s music and with him personally?

A: In the early 1970s when I was getting interested in jazz, the CRTC introduced Canadian content rules for radio and TV. Suddenly there were several TV variety shows produced in Toronto. I kept seeing the same musicians: Rob McConnell, Moe Koffman, Guido Basso, Jimmy Dale, Ed Bickert, Don Thompson and Terry Clarke. I was fascinated by the fact that Rob played the valve trombone and was blown away by his sound and his ability to swing.

When I was 19, I attended a Phil Nimmons clinic in Fredericton, N.B., so I could meet Rob and get some lessons with him. We developed almost a father-son type relationship. He had the reputation of being crusty and impatient with people but he was always kind to me. Meeting him inspired me to move to Toronto and study at Humber College.

Q: How has McConnell influenced your trombone playing and your composing and arranging?

A: Living in Toronto in the 1980s, I attended countless Boss Brass concerts and heard Rob play in jazz clubs many times with small groups. I was hired a few times to sub in the Boss Brass trombone section, which was a total thrill for me.

In the early 1990s I received a Canada Council for the Arts grant to study arranging with Rob. During the lessons, I got a lot of insight into how he approached composition and arranging. He was hard on me and didn’t pull any punches when he thought my work was substandard. It was exactly what I needed at the time.

Q: What did you do to pull together the material for Saturday’s concert?

A: I had a lot of fun transcribing Rob’s compositions for this concert. As far as I know, they’re not available in print and I prefer learning tunes from recordings rather than just reading them anyway.

Q: On Oct. 20, you’ll be playing at Merrickville’s Jazz Fest, but in a quartet with Ottawa saxophonist Mike Tremblay. What will that gig entail?

A: We’ll be performing original material from our recently released CD, Appleface. It’s an unusual title that makes reference to Mike’s wife’s horse.

Mike and I made a duo recording in 2008 that consisted of music associated with the great jazz pianist Bill Evans. For Appleface, we decided to record all originals composed by either me or Mike. We have a great friendship, and I think it affects our musical communication in a very positive way.


If you go

Mark Ferguson Trio
When: Saturday, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m.
Where: GigSpace (953 Gladstone Ave.)
Tickets: $25 at gigspace.ca or at the door

Mark Ferguson / Tremblay Quartet
When: Sunday, Oct. 20, 4 p.m.
Where: Merrickville United Arts Centre
Tickets and festival passes: merrickvillesjazzfest.com

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