Hugh Fraser has studied and performed with many major artists on the contemporary jazz scene. The likes of Dave Holland, Slide Hampton, Joe Henderson, and Kenny Wheeler helped develop his skills as a pianist and trombone player. However, as bandleader and composer for the Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, Fraser has found that his most influential mentor is a man he never met.
"More than anything, it's Duke Ellington's philosophy of inclusiveness and his great generosity with his players that I admire and have used as my model," says Fraser, on the line from his home in Victoria. "I learned early on from him that to keep a large bunch of people together, you have to be very patient and very understanding of their other commitments. So I've always let them sub out to other musicians when they've needed to, and embraced the opportunities for new things to happen. And I write with specific players in mind, focusing on their personalities and strengths, which was one of Duke's hallmarks."
The 16-piece VEJI doesn't fit any convenient mould. It's neither a traditional big band nor an avant-garde outfit, but an eclectic ensemble playing a mix of jazz genres, with influences from world and classical music. "The galvanizing thing is people's desire to express themselves freely with all their resources," Fraser explains. "I've worked hard to create musical situations where basically there are no holds barred-so we can incorporate a wide range of improvising styles."
Judging by the longevity of VEJI and the loyalty of its members, Fraser's open-minded leadership has proven inspirational. Eight of the original 13 members are still in the lineup, and for VEJI's performance at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre this Friday (October 28), vocalist Christine Duncan, sax player Perry White, and virtuosic trumpeter Walter White are flying in from Toronto and New York.
The evening's highlight is the B.C. premiere of one of Fraser's most ambitious works, the hourlong Canadian Dedication Suite. "Nearly all the suites written for this country have been geographic in nature, but I decided to take another tack, focusing on Canada's diversity of cultures. Obviously the basis is North American jazz, but there are elements of Cuban salsa, some Indian raga-type things, and rock 'n' roll-and we've even got Inuit-style throat-singing. I draw inspiration from all of these and fuse them in a way that only jazz can really allow one to do. There's a great deal of improvisation in the piece, harking back to the band's first years."
VEJI will also play a selection of Fraser's most popular compositions, including the ballad "Leda's Song", the African percussion-based "The Key of Love", and" Screeab-Bop!", an imaginative and humorous coupling of Dizzy Gillespie's bebop and classical composer Alexander Scriabin's unusual harmonies. "I thought it would be really cool if the two could have met and written together," says Fraser. "We have a lot of fun mixing things up like that. But no matter what the style or genre, what's constant in VEJI is the energy and the joy that comes from outstanding musicians who've performed with each other a very long time."