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Greg Samek: Practice makes percussion


Percussionist Greg Samek, teaching a master class. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

Recently I sat in on a master class taught by percussionist Greg Samek to a group of Grade 8 and 9 students from Edmonton. After the class, I talked with him about two of his passions — music and education. “It’s a wonderful road you’re all going down,” Samek said to the students after he played for them for a minute on a drum set and vibraphone. He was referring to their decision to play music. “It was the best decision I ever made.”

Samek, who now holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music, began his career as a self-taught drummer at the age of 17. He currently plays in the percussion group Scrap Arts Music and works on solo projects that have brought him to The Banff Centre many times over the past five years. “It pretty much was love at first sight — I knew that I needed to come back to be in the mountains to practice,” he told me.

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Dave Douglas takes it to the coda

In the classroom. The writing on the blackboard references a celebrated Ethiopian jazz musician. Photo: Donald Lee.

In 2003, composer and sax player Chet Doxas was back at The Banff Centre for the second time. He had been a musician in the jazz workshop in 2001, taking a break from undergrad studies at McGill to explore a program he’d heard about from many of the young musicians he knew in Montreal. Returning to the program in 2003, Doxas was asked to join workshop director Dave Douglas and his quintet on stage to play music from Douglas’ album, The Infinite. “That was a big moment for me,” Doxas says. “It was a big confidence booster.” The two musicians have stayed in touch, and this year Doxas was back in Banff as a faculty artist, mentoring a new generation of jazz musicians.

Dave Douglas doing what he does best. Photo: Donald Lee.

This is typical for Douglas – creating a community of musicians, and music, that continues to come full circle. This year was his tenth and last year as director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, and he finished on the same high note he started on, with an open forum for young musicians to mix with invited artists (including pianist Vijay Iyer, who will take over as director of the program in 2013), build their own ensembles, and play in an intense schedule of concerts and late-night club shows.

Building on a foundation laid by previous directors, including Oscar Peterson and Phil Nimmons, Dave Holland, and Kenny Werner, Douglas has established something great and lasting at Banff. “I don’t think the Banff workshop has ever been more popular than it is now,” Doxas says. “Dave has evolved it. There are a lot of musicians who could have come in once and done well, but Dave stuck around for ten years and developed it to what it is now. He’s doing his absolute best work.”

To mark those ten great years, Inspired caught up with Dave Douglas as he was wrapping up his latest European tour and preparing for his final weeks as director.

What did you know about The Banff Centre before you came here?
Not much! I first came in the summer of 1992 to do a recording project with George Schuller and Orange Then Blue. We were on a tour across Canada and stopped at the Centre for a week in the recording studio. In my enthusiasm for the natural beauty, I was running alone on the Hoodoo Trail every morning. Only at the end of the week did we receive a proper orientation about the potential for unlucky encounters with wildlife. I guess I was lucky!

Had you come up as faculty before becoming director of the program?
When Kenny Werner was directing the program in the late 90s he started inviting me to come as a visiting artist. I had never taught or talked about my music before. I agreed to come but was terrified about having to talk about process with such a bright group of participants. For my first class I prepared way too much material — just in case I ran out of ideas, I wanted to be prepared. Within ten minutes, the questions started flowing and I’d say I made it through about 10 per cent of my program. That kind of open give-and-take was an eye-opener for me, and it is a hallmark of the program and The Banff Centre in general.

Douglas in an early Banff Centre performance, 2001. Photo: Donald Lee.

Why do you think this type of creative / improvisational jazz thrives at Banff?
I really think nature has a lot to do with the power of jazz and improvisation at Banff. Sharing the mountains and the quiet with each other we get to a level of focus that is often elusive in more urban environments. In addition, the facilities at The Banff Centre are such that anything one needs is always nearby. Because of that, musicians tend to go from musical project to musical project all day, immersing themselves in a diverse array of musical environments. For me, it’s the early mornings. I go to my hut with my instrument and my ideas, my head and my heart. Those hours of meditative presence are divine.

Tell us about a particular project you’ve conceived of or finished here.
Mountain Passages was a piece commissioned by the mountain music festival called I Suoni delle Dolomiti, in Trentino, Italy. All of their concerts are performed at mountain refuges, and the audience and the players alike have to hike to the “venue.” I composed the suite for them at Banff in 2003. It’s for trumpet, clarinet, cello, tuba, and percussion. We did carry the instruments up the mountains, thankfully with some assistance from alpine guides.

Is there a “Banff community” of musicians out there in the wider world of jazz?
There is a constantly expanding community of Banff jazz program alumni. I see them everywhere I tour. Many of the participants end up in international groups together, making annual tours in each other’s countries. Also, the program has been going long enough now that alumni are coming back as faculty — many of them are musical leaders in their communities now. This year I’m thrilled to bring back Chet Doxas and Linda Oh, who were students in the program early in my time leading it. That kind of continuity is very satisfying to see. And now that I’m moving on from the program, I’m excited by the future that Vijay Iyer will bring to this extraordinary international musical resource.

What are a few of the things or experiences you’ll take away with you after ten years?
After ten years, the most important thing I’ll take away is the people. There have been so many wonderful people at Banff. Isobel and Tom Rolston. Janet Amy. Jorie Adams. Lynne Huras. Martin Finnerty. Mark Wold. Theresa Leonard. The McKinnon Family. There are too many to name. This is a wonderful community and I will miss my annual visits. Plus all of the people who have come to help facilitate the jazz program in many seasons: Mark Micklethwaite, Michael Bates, Pat Reid, Angela Morris.

Most memorable moment?
There have been so many extreme moments! Here are a few short memories:
Miguel Zenon, when asked what one should practice, calmly opens his practice journal and explains what he will be working on for the next ten years. Bill Frisell describes himself as “not much of a talker,” and then plays his guitar more clearly than words ever could express. Jason Moran, when asked what a musician should include in their press kit, thinks for a long moment and says, “You really should just work on the music.” I‘ve learned from every visiting artist I have brought to campus. That’s really the gift of the program, that we all learn from each other

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Behind the music: composers and commissions

From one of two outdoor performances of John Luther Adams' Inuksuit, June 2009. Photo: Don Lee

In 2010, The Banff Centre’s Music department commissioned innovative jazz composer Danilo Perez to write a composition for the Cecilia Quartet, winners of the 2010 Banff International String Quartet Competition. Scheduled to premiere in Toronto in 2013, Danilo will accompany the quartet on jazz piano.

Danilo’s piece is just one in a long line of original works commissioned and co-commissioned by The Banff Centre. In June this year, Banff audiences will hear a new commissioned work by jazz trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas, celebrating his tenth and final year as director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Over the years, Dave has shifted the focus of this program to creating new and original music, so it makes sense that he’ll wrap things up with this new piece.

Canadian composer, Taylor Brook’s original composition Against the Morning, and Bob Becker’s score for string quartet, piano, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba and timpani were both commissioned and premiered at The Banff Centre in 2011. In 2010, the Common Sense Composers’ Collective, the Afiara String Quartet and the Cecilia String Quartet joined together at the Centre, collaborating on eight commissioned works.

The Gruppo Montebello project rehearses Taylor Brooks' Against the Morning, Fall 2011. Photo: Don Lee

In 2009, Omar Daniel‘s dramatic original score underpinned his work Penelope and Odysseus, created for the Penderecki String quartet and an innovative use of onstage live electronic processing, to accompany a performance from Dancetheatre David Earle.

Alaskan composer John Luther Adams‘ unique outdoor percussion piece, Inuksuit, was created as part the Roots and Rhizomes Percussion residency here in 2009, and was performed on the Centre’s outdoor grounds on the evening of the summer solstice, and then again in a remote location in Kananaskis Country. Since then, the work has travelled to New York for performances in Morningside Park, and at the Tune-In Music Festival at the Park Avenue Armory (a performance that New Yorker music critic Alex Ross called “one of the most rapturous listening experiences” of his life), and was featured as part of the Round Top Music Festival in Texas.

Composer John Adams, during a Banff Centre creative residency in 2009. Photo: Don Lee

Notably, John AdamsString Quartet co-commission (with Stanford University and the Juilliard School), created for the St. Lawrence String Quartet, has toured around the world since it’s world premiere at Julliard. The quartet performed the work’s Canadian premiere in Banff in 2009, with Adams conducting.

The Banff Centre continues to commission works from artists for a variety of projects. Coming up, bluegrass duo the Kruger Brothers will transform The Banff Centre’s Shaw Amphitheatre on August 25th this year with an original work that mixes chamber music and storytelling with a commissioned piece for strings, woodwinds, and percussion, based on the theme of the Swiss guides’ enormous impact on mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies.


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Inspired alumna brings Banff to the UK

South is a silent film, made in 1919, and much of the footage was taken by Frank Hurley, who accompanied Shackleton on his epic voyage to the Antarctic in 1914-1916

Inspired by the diversity of the Friday Evening at the Rolston concerts, Banff Centre alumna Cheryl Law created her own series: Sallow Tree Concerts. Now, after 15 successful performances, Sallow Tree Concerts’ newest show, The Idea of South, features the creative works of composer and pianist Simon James Phillips. Developed at The Banff Centre, The Idea of South explores the haunting and mesmerizing story of Ernest Shackleton’s voyage to Antarctica through improvised piano music and a screening of the 1919 silent film South.

Cheryl Law explains further.

Q: Where did you get the inspiration for Sallow Tree Concerts?

I simply love The Banff Centre, and I especially love the concerts that take place in Rolston Recital Hall on Fridays.  Each time I returned home from Banff I searched for similar concerts, but nothing like it really existed. In Banff, I found there were people everywhere who can help you believe you can do anything, and this, without doubt, gave me the inspiration and the courage to set up my own concert series back home.  The Banff Centre is alive in my series!

Q: Why did you call your series Sallow Tree Concerts?

I named the concert series after my small town, Sale, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for Sallow Tree—a type of Willow.

Q: How did your latest concert, The Idea of South come out of your partnership with Simon James Phillips?

Whilst I was in Banff on my own residency, Simon was also there working on The Idea of South. His mastery of improvisation, matched with his attention to detail in the film South, created a sound track which I found original and captivating.  I truly thought it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in Banff – and that is saying something! !  I knew straight away I’d like to get Simon to the UK to perform.

Q: The Mountain Film Festival screening in Manchester will be promoting The Idea of South.  Why do you feel the Festival audience is well-suited to this concert?

The Mountain Film Festival was on tour in Manchester just after I arrived back from the Banff Centre in 2011, and I felt so excited to be there—like Banff had followed me home! I found people in Banff to be open-minded and adventurous, with an interest in other people and cultures, and I found that the Mountain Festival audience in Manchester to be the same! As the film South is an adventure tale, I knew there would be an appreciation for the story.

Cheryl Law, creator of the Sallow Tree Concert Series in the U.K.

Composer and pianist Simon James Phillips.

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The Magic Banff Formula with Henk Guittart

“Why can I do things here that I cannot do in my studio at  home?”   

Henk Guittart working with musician in residence. Photo: Donald Lee.

Henk Guittart working with cellist Adrian Fung of the Afiara Quartet. Photo: Donald Lee.

During a snowy afternoon chat over chocolates I caught up with Henk Guittart, Director of our Fall and Winter Creative Music Residencies, to hear all about his Magic Banff Formula.

How long have you been the Director?
Officially, I started October 2010 but truly I started long before that; organizing faculty and adjudicating applications in the spring of that same year. I began coming to the Centre as guest faculty in 2006 and sort of grew into the role.

What is one of your highlights since you took over as Director? Without being a cliché, my highlight is this week – having pianist Ronan O’Hora here and this week’s population of resident artists.  That is how I live and think in the moment. 

You’re in Banff from October to March. What do you do during the summer?
Our first summer in Canada my wife, Carolien, organized a retreat for us on Vancouver Island.  We fell in love with the Island.  We come over early every summer from Holland to go back there.

What do you miss most about Holland when you’re in Banff? 
I like to say there’s nothing wrong with missing something.  So it would only be bad if my joy of being in Banff would be overruled by missing the sea, my friends in the Netherlands, and my family. 

What do you think The Banff Centre offers musicians that other residency programs don’t?
There really is no competition to this program. It is open to artists in all varieties and in all stages of their career. The length of the fall/winter program, 20 weeks is unheard of – 24 hour access to your own studio, amazing performance opportunities, incredible recording facilities, and warmth and support from your peers.   There are also all the subconscious benefits – fantastic isolation, geographical setting, and incredible scenery – the full experience of being here.  A Magic Banff Formula that leaves people asking, ‘Why can I do things here that I cannot do in my studio at home?” 

What’s your Magic Banff Formula?
Aside from working with the musicians and faculty, I love being outdoors – walking in the snow and being able to take in the landscape.    


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