Dance project unites family’s music

Jennifer and Jason Hunter left behind jazz and opera careers in Boston to raise their children Gabriel, 1, Serena, 3, and Maya, 7, in Jason's home town of Kincardine. Hunter leads a jazz combo, including Jennifer on vocals, for the Sheila Milne Celtic Dancers of Owen Sound Christmas dance performances Dec. 18 and 18 at The Roxy in Owen Sound. BILL HENRY/The Sun Times.

BILL HENRY
Sun Times staff
After 10 years in Boston, Jason and Jennifer Hunter’s careers were well established.
Jason was playing jazz with the people he wanted to work with. Jennifer was singing in operas. After years of study, they were both finally making a living in music.
But with a year-old daughter then, a troubled American political climate and an unexpected $15,000 annual fee for the school they chose, the couple was at a crossroads.
So in 2006, they chose lifestyle ahead of music careers and moved to Jason’s home town of Kincardine to raise Maya, seven, and now Serena, three and Gabriel, one.
It was “the right decision,” Jennifer said recently.
If not for that move, the highly-schooled jazz saxophone player and classically-trained singer of opera and African American spiritual music would never have collaborated, as they’ve done for “So This Is Christmas” with The Celtic Dance Company of Owen Sound.
Jason has assembled a jazz combo for shows Dec. 18 and 19 at The Roxy Theatre, featuring longtime Owen Sound jazz man Don Buchanan, bassist Tyler Wagler and others, with Jennifer singing some classic 1960s Christmas standards from Ella Fitzgerald repertoire.
Jason said he’d thought for years that his wife’s voice would suit that music, but in Boston, their careers never overlapped.
“It really is the first time we’re working together,” Hunter said, during a recent rehearsal at Sheila Milne’s Owen Sound dance studio. The couple’s daughters are dance students, and part of the Christmas dance and music production.
“Had we been still in Boston, I don’t think something like this would have happened,” Jennifer said. “We were in two completely different camps as far as the music we were performing. I don’t think we even ever talked about performing together. Not until we moved up here.”
Jason grew up in Kincardine, where as a high school student under music teacher Ian Burbidge’s leadership, he soon “wiggled my way” into playing big band jazz with both the Stardust Big Band and the Lighthouse Swing Band.
He pursued the big band jazz interest for four years at McGill in Montreal, known then for its focus on big band and 1960s bebop and post bebop styles. Hunter went next to Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music for a Masters of jazz performance. He wanted to expand into more contemporary jazz styles and explore modern improvisational music.
During 10 years gigging Boston and New York he worked with jazz luminaries like Bob Brookmeyer, George Garzone, Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano and Kenny Wheeler. He was a member of George Russell’s Living Time Orchestra, the Artie Shaw Orchestra, played on on dozens of recordings, most notably with Guaranteed Swahili, Dead Cat Bounce, Charlie Kohlhase, Kakalla, Patrice Williamson, and on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Journey into Jazz.
In Canada, he has performed with Michael Bublé, the Temptations, Barry Elmes, Lorne Lofsky, singer-songwriter Kate Schutt, and Sploink, the Noodle Factory Jazz Orchestra, and the Stardust Big Band.
“I was looking for something a little bit more contemporary, a little bit freer, a little bit more influenced by music that had happened since” the 1960s jazz era he studied at McGill.
Hunter said the most important thing about his time at the New England Conservatory of Music was meeting his future wife there.
Raised in a musical family Indianapolis, Indiana, Jennifer studied voice at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, then pursued her masters at The New England Conservatory in vocal performance and vocal pedagogy
“At graduate school, I did a lot of soul searching and finding my voice and discovering where my passion for music is and what I really enjoy singing,” she said.
That led the soprano to a position with the prestigious National Spiritual Ensemble, a small group which toured the U.S. specializing in African American spiritual and gospel music.
“It was a tremendous learning experience,” Hunter said. “Everyone had the opportunity to greatly express themselves artistically and musically. It was a real growing experience and a real soul searching experience, and being African American myself, I felt a real connection, and I still do, to that music.
She was a featured soloist for Boston’s Black Nativity under the direction of John Ross, and soprano soloist for the Cantata Singers Chamber Series under the direction of Kayo Iwama.
“My training, my background and my education is in classical music. It’s in opera. And it’s with those skills that I enjoy singing all kinds of music, but particularly the African American music,” Hunter said.
Both parents said the move to Kincardine has not robbed them of music, but instead has provided also a rich, ideal lifestyle for raising a family.
“It was a tough decision,” Jason said.
“Musically, I’m not singing with any operas,” Jennifer said. “But I’m enjoying myself and I’m expressing myself and I have a wonderful family and I think as the kids grow and get older, hopefully I can do more music in the community,” Jennifer said.,
At first Jason, who now works at Bruce Power as a nuclear operator, remained connected to the Boston and New York jazz scene, with occasional return trips for gigs. With three kids now, he keeps closer to home and has been playing with the local jazz groups Noodle Factory, led by his former teacher Ian Burbidge, and Sploink, another group with Don Buchanan, playing original jazz music.
“There are people around and there are places to play,” Hunter said.
“It’s a change but it certainly hasn’t meant my dreams of playing music are squashed or anything like that. They’ve just changed. The perspective is a little different and I have different goals. Getting the music ready for this show is as much of a challenge as pretty much anything else I’ve done.
With “So This is Christmas,” it’s his first time leading a jazz group for dance music, and the first time Sheila Milne’s classical ballet, modern dance and Highland students have performed with jazz music.
Bassist Tyler Wagler, guitarist Andy Harasymczuk, and drummer Michael Sloski, are part of the group, while Jamie Smith will also sing.
Daniel Carr, a former Milne student who recently won the adult world Highland dance competition in Scotland will perform, as will Anne Thomson, who is an Ontario Champion, Canadian Champion and North American Champion and has been been a runner-up at the world championships in Scotland.
Heather Dixon and dancers from her Dixon’s Dance and Fitness Studio are also part of the show, at The Roxy Saturday, Dec. 18 at 8 p.m. and Sunday Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $18 for seniors and students, available at the Roxy box office.
(Bill Henry is a Sun Times news reporter and photographer. Our Sound runs Fridays. bhenry@thesuntimes.ca)

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