Sun Times staff
Mark Fewer’s 2011 Juno for jazz won’t sway the violinist, music professor and Sweetwater Music Festival artistic director.
“I’m still primarily a violinist that’s a classical violinist. There’s no two ways about it,” Fewer said recently.
Just days before, with longtime collaborator Phil Dwyer, Fewer accepted the 2011 Juno for their contemporary jazz recording Changing Seasons, and Fewer was still “over the moon about it.”
A Canadian jazz giant with six Junos under his belt now, Dwyer composed Changing Seasons as a jazz concerto for violin, string orchestra and big band. He wrote it expressly for Fewer as soloist, who over two decades as one of this country’s preeminent classical violinists has often had his hands and head deep into jazz.
Often that’s been with Dwyer, who will again perform at the Sweetwater Music Festival in September, and share programming duties with Fewer, directing the Saturday night concert.
“It’s a relationship that just keeps on building and building,” Fewer said.
Dwyer will premier at Sweetwater a brand new composition he’s written for string quintet, piano and soprano saxophone. Dwyer will play sax, Fewer will put together the quintet, including festival regular Joe Phillips on bass. David Braid, whose 2011 traditional jazz album Verge, also won a Juno, will play piano, then later that night join Dwyer in a duo performance.
Braid will also premier new music, his Chauvet, for string quartet and piano.
“So we’ve got a triumvirate of the Juno clan showing up” for what will “definitely” be an evening of jazz for the Saturday night Sweetwater concert, Fewer said.
Kenneth Slowick, artistic director with the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society, will also make a return to Sweetwater, programming the Friday night concert of early music. That night, at Leith Church, will also feature the bass baritone Phillip Sly, a recent McGill graduate who is now hitting the big opera stages.
“He’s pretty much the it singer now on the scene,” Fewer said. “I expect he will blow that place to pieces. He’s just got huge presence and huge voice.”
New plans to revamp the Sunday concert are in the works.
Fewer’s collaborations with Dwyer began in the late 1990s. Although the violinist has been part of Juno and Grammy-winning recordings before, including Dwyer’s Lost in the Stars CD project with Guido Basso a decade ago, this was the first with his name on it as a featured performer.
“It’s a little hilarious that I’m getting it, because I’m a classical player,” he said. “A lot of people are wondering if I’m going to turn myself into a jazz violinist. The answer is no, I’m still very much a classical violinist.”
And a busy one.
Changing Seasons is one of eight CD releases for Fewer, violin professor at McGill University, during what he calls “a bountiful time” since 2010. He’s also set to release on Naxos a collection of solo violin performances of works by Canadian composers, living and dead, as well as another jazz disc recorded with collaborators from his native Newfoundland, expected by the fall.
When Dwyer first suggested collaborating on a full-length violin concerto inspired by Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Fewer knew it would be his original music, not just a jazz version.
“I knew he wanted to do something entirely his own, so trusting him as I did, I thought OK, this is something I’ll put my weight into.”
It’s a big work, requiring close to 40 musicians; a big band and a string orchestra.
See the Sun Times http://www.owensoundsuntimes,com website for a video look at how the project came together.
The piece relies also on Fewer’s skills as both a trained classical musician, reading and interpreting the score, and his experience as an improviser, putting his own stamp into the open-ended jazz sections of the piece.
“There are large sections that are written out and there are large sections that are improvised. I do both in it for sure,” Fewer said.
Although bridging both musical worlds is not something he teaches, specifically, it is something he encourages by example.
“In the 20 years that I’ve been doing it, I’ve been watching a sea change,” he said. “More and more people are coming in with the desire to learn how to improvise and with the desire to get their feet wet in more than one world of creative output.”
For the first performance, in November of 2010, Fewer enlisted the McGill’s music department – faculty, students and alumnae, along with technicians to record the performance.
“We just knew, Phil and I, within an hour of that performance being over, we knew we should push further and try to get a real record of this made,” Fewer said.
Based in B.C. Dwyer relied on West Coats connections for financial support for the project. He assembled the big band, Fewer the strings.
“We’re just super happy with the result,” he said. “I felt pretty ecstatic when we got the whole thing done. When the final edit was sent to me I was over the moon. I just thought it sounded fantastic.”
Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Jazz reviewer Peter Hum calls the project 2011’s most ambitious Canadian jazz disc, with Fewer “sufficiently strong and expressive to soar over strings and jazz ensemble alike . . . a commanding presence.”
“The music is lyrical and listenable, with palpable emotional and logical momentum driving it forward as well as Dwyer’s deft integration and variation in orchestrating his music,” Lum writes. “Canada’s jazz festivals and chamber music festivals alike would do well to figure out how they might present Changing Seasons in 2012. Its the kind of first-class work that takes the best from jazz and classical musics to create something new and appealing for listeners of all stripes.”
Although it has only been performed live once, Fewer also said he hopes the composition has a future in other hands. It would be an ideal piece for community orchestras to offer in partnership with a big band.
“I’m hopeful that it has legs long beyond our own existence. I think we both felt strongly that when we were putting so much of ourselves into it that it was because the whole idea was going to outlive us,” Fewer said. “So if comes to pass that this Juno pushes it into a place where we can have a few more performances of it that’s great.”