Trombonist and composer Christian Overton has put together an all-star lineup of Toronto-based jazz musicians to write music about their city for the Composers Collective Big Band’s new album, The Toronto Project.
Formed in 2005, the Composers Collective Big Band’s mandate is to present works for large jazz ensemble by Canadian composers.
Overton joined us to talk about the group’s latest work.
A million years ago, you were on Jazzology and I was the host. Do you remember that?
I remember it very well. I remember you asking me something about valve trombone, and I was like, “I don’t really know too much about valve trombone, to tell you the truth.”
Let’s talk about the Composers Collective Big Band. Can you tell me about its formation, how it came to be?
I was studying at Humber College with the great John Macleod and I was doing private lessons, etc., and then I was thinking as I was about to graduate, What am I going to do with these big-band arranging skills that I’ve learned? John said, “Well, why don’t you put together your own band?” I thought that was a terrible idea, trying to get all the logistics together. But I did just that. We got together the Composers Collective Big Band and we rehearsed every Sunday for years. I managed to get a room at Humber, and we had students and some professionals. I would bring in some of my charts and other writers and musicians that I knew would also bring in charts. We’d play them, and people would tell me why they were terrible and why a clarinet can’t actually do this or that. It was an amazing learning experience, not only to work on my own writing, but I got to know a heck of a lot of young players that were subbing in every week and playing some of my original music.
The logistics of keeping a big band together with some kind of regularity seems like one of the hardest tricks in jazz.
I think it probably is. Maybe the hardest.
Did things get a little less formal as things moved along?
We started to get more of a regular band, and we started performing at places like The Rex and the Beaches Jazz Festival over the years. It’s really been evolving into a performance ensemble. We’ve been featuring a lot of new writers. We’ve got a nice, diverse group now, which is really exciting.
With this new album, I love the idea of defining Toronto through music and composition. You were in search of the “Toronto sound.” Tell me about the idea and how you thought you could execute it.
Obviously, I’m a fan of big band myself. I’ve been around the world and I’ve met different people who say, “Oh yeah, the Boss Brass, what a Toronto sound.” I was thinking how if I listen to [a New York big band], it doesn’t sound like that at all. If I listen to an L.A. big band, etc., they don’t seem to have their own, individual sound. We’re in 2023 now. What is the Toronto sound now? People who are creating music now, it’s not necessarily the same as in Rob McConnell’s day. We have so many young, diverse composers, and I wanted to find out what the “Toronto sound” is now.
I had a chance to talk to John Macleod when he released the Rex Hotel Orchestra’s album called The Toronto Sound. I asked John at that time to define what he thought it was, and like you’re saying, he said it’s the combination of these guys [like Rob McConnell] who were in the studios all day doing very un-jazz-like sessions and then heading to the jazz clubs at night. He said there wasn’t really another experience of musicians having that kind of split, where they were doing very commercial work in studios all day long and then they were free to play jazz at night, and that made the sessions have a unique sound.
Absolutely. I think that real attention to section playing and that kind of thing, all of Rob’s thick arrangements that came off so well because they were playing together all the time in all these sessions, that really was the Toronto sound. I feel like John Macleod’s really continued that with his Rex Hotel Orchestra, and this “Toronto sound” that we’ve got going on is a whole other ball game for the new generation.
What it may be now is the diversity of the musicians and the influences they bring from their culture and heritage.
I think you can really hear that when you listen to the record. You can drop the needle anywhere and you’re in a whole different world. It’s definitely the strength of the album, but that diversity is also the strength of Toronto. Being able to represent even just a piece of that was a real privilege for us.
How did you find the people who would compose this material?
Luckily, I’ve been involved in lots of scenes — not just necessarily the jazz scene, but I play a lot of Latin music, Afrobeat music, and music from all over the world, because we have so many fantastic immigrant cultures here in Toronto. So, [it was] people I’ve heard sing and play in my experience playing in Toronto over the last 20 years. Like what you were saying about Rob McConnell doing studio work, these days I’m playing lots of different types of music from lots of different types of composers and from different heritages.
Getting into a studio with all these musicians, the feeling of satisfaction of being in there and hearing that music for the first time performed by the people assembled, it must be incredibly gratifying.
It was definitely emotional. It’s such an experience. Being able to pick all these great players and then have it come together — not only logistically, but also just playing their hearts out — it’s an emotional experience for me, for sure.
This interview has been edited and condensed.