Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

January/February 2009: Sophie Milman

Oceanic Jazz Orchestra:
New Waves

Written by:

Steve Kirby’s Oceanic Jazz Orchestra took a lot of listeners by surprise last June at the Groove-FM Jazz Winnipeg Festival when the group opened for Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. They heated things up again as the opener for the Domino Jazz Concert in mid-August. They anchored this year’s Concert for Hope and Peace, and will bring their sound to the Winnipeg Art Gallery in February as part of the Jazz Under the Rooftop series.

From repertoire to instrumentation, OJO is forging its own path. You’re likely to hear a Persian death song keening over a jazz rhythm section. Or a Japanese folk song counterpointed with “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Or a Leonard Cohen tune reconfigured by an Arabic malfuf rhythm. You’re likely to hear traces of Brazil, India, Puerto Rico, Iceland, Cuba, and straight-up Americana, all on the same roster.

The band make-up is a little unusual too. A traditional jazz rhythm section—sometimes sans piano—forms the core. Depending on the piece, you’re likely to hear various combinations of saxophone, trumpet, and trombone. A string quartet is an important component in pretty much all of the arrangements, and many pieces feature vocalists. Almost all depend on the texture of additional percussionists, with other more exotic instruments appearing here and there.

For Steve Kirby, the Oceanic Jazz Orchestra is the realization of a long-held dream. He has played all over the world, from Portugal to Japan to Iceland to Turkey to Argentina and all over North America, and those travels have given him a chance to hear many kinds of music and meet audiences and musicians of many backgrounds. He began to collect folk melodies from his first travels outside of the US, and was always intrigued by how those musical structures connected with the standard repertoire that has evolved in the jazz idiom.

The orchestra gives him an opportunity to explore relationships between folk traditions and the jazz tradition. Oceana, that mythic idea of the world as a gathering of related parts, provides the impetus for both the writing and the instrumentation. The group itself is responsive to the performance context and who’s around to play—Israeli-born trumpeter Avishai Cohen brought his sensibility to the Domino Concert stage this summer, and American saxophone virtuoso Steve Wilson will be part of the group at the WAG performance in February. But this isn’t really a showcase for famous frontmen. On the stage last summer, world-class saxophonist Victor Goines stood shoulder to shoulder with Shannon Kristjanson, a young jazz student at the U of M. Her offering on the Chinese flute was among the most moving moments of the evening.

Exchange is an idea that sits at the center of the whole OJO project. Exchange between musical folk traditions and the jazz process. Exchange between various performance styles and genres. Exchange between players of different backgrounds—Andrea Bell and various other members of the Rembrandt String Quartet provide an important counterpoint to the jazz artists in all of the arrangements. Communication is the key, and when it happens on so many levels at once, it opens the door to a fresh wind.

It might be a new idea, but it’s an old idea too. At its inception, jazz was the art form that came out of the collision and coalescing of dramatically different musical languages and cultures. That New Orleans’ “world music” experiment has expanded and changed shape over the intervening century—jazz has migrated out to far-flung places, and the musical languages of those far-flung places are gradually making their way back into the central holding tank of ideas.

The Oceanic Jazz Orchestra is right there at that point of influx. It takes as its mandate the basic tenets of jazz: a trust in the energy and richness of conversation between individual artists and between musical traditions, and a high value for spontaneity, virtuosity, creativity, and an appetite for new ideas. The world tour has come to Winnipeg—don’t miss your ticket.

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