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Borealis Beat

A glimpse into the mind of our Artistic Director as she shares her knowledge and expertise on our music selections, the composers, artists, concerts, and more

CAFÉ PARIS – Mellow Moods

Consortium Aurora Borealis heralds the New Year with ‘Café Paris’, an engaging concert by the popular Martin Blanchet Jazz Quintet, whose mellow moods will warm your spirits on a cold winter night! Their presentations delve into many different musical genres, from jazz to classical, with touches of world music.

Known for their recognizable jazz arrangements of classic French repertoire, they’ll treat you to an unforgettable evening as they recreate the intimate atmosphere of a Parisian café. The music is most appealing, and for some will be a trip down memory lane! The songs selected vary greatly in style, mood and rhythm, with slow, medium, and up-swings.
A waltz closes each half.

The programme chiefly covers the period from 1932 to 1949, known as the Swing era, and focuses on works by the great jazz performers Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, among others. We hear examples of ‘gypsy’ or ‘manouche’ jazz (“Gypsy Fire”; “Black and White”), as well as chansons, including the 1946 hit song “La Mer” (“Beyond the Sea”), immortalized in the closing scene of the 2007 film Mr. Bean’s Holiday, where the whole cast mimes to the original French recording of the song on the Cannes beach! From later years, we have two Jacques Brel cabaret songs, including the equally popular and recognizable “La Valse a mille temps” of 1959. Martin Blanchet’s vocals enhance the café atmosphere!

For the first time, the Quintet’s jazz programme includes Baroque and Classical music quotes, within a jazz context. There is a certain affinity between jazz and Baroque music, in which improvisation, harmonic and melodic, plays an important role. A Baroque soloist’s improvisation would be based on the groundwork of the accompaniment, just as in jazz. The improvised lines would not be written out, but would rather be spontaneous, differing every time. In both Baroque and jazz, the performer must be aware of the original tune and underlying harmonies, to fit in.

Both utilize a free performance style; the artist is not note-bound. Both employ a chordal foundation, with written markings indicating the chords to be used, a musical shorthand. Baroque and jazz are often based on dance rhythms, but also may use a “walking bass”, the latter noticeable in jazz’s plucked bass lines.

J.S. Bach’s music lends itself particularly well to jazz, witness CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” sign-off theme, Moe Koffman’s “Koff Drops”, based on the Allegro of a Bach sonata as arranged and performed by the legendary jazz flautist! It’s the opening number on his “Moe Koffman Plays Bach” 1971 jazz LP (available complete on YouTube!).

Martin Blanchet made an interesting arrangement of Django Reinhardt’s lively 1946 “Coquette”, quoting Bach’s solo Violin Partita No.1 in B minor. In the 1932 slow swing “Blue Drag” he cunningly works in quotes from the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. References are quoted during solos. Blanchet also arranged Shostakovich’s iconic Waltz No. 2 for jazz quintet. When asked how he makes his arrangements, he divulged that he sits at his piano with a glass of wine, improvises, and the good ideas come out! He loves writing for Café Paris the most, because of the variety of colours he has access to. 

Martin has been writing and arranging music throughout his entire musical career, for his local Francophone choir as well as for classical double bass and of course for his innovative jazz productions. You will hear solo introductions, frequently lengthy, before swinging into the main tune the piece is based on. The various instruments will have their moment, in true jazz style, with the improvisatory nature coming right through. His jazz arrangements make use of three kinds of clarinets and a few extra percussion instruments, for special effects.

In town, Martin Blanchet is chiefly known as Principal Bass of the Thunder Bay Symphony, but is also its Operations Manager, and teaches musicianship and bass at Lakehead University. Kevin Brohman is the TBSO’s Principal Timpanist and has his feet in both classical and popular camps. He contributes remarkably to the sound and energy of the group. I invite you to go to “Artists” under “About” in our Consortium website, where you will find bios and interesting information on all the artists we have used so far this season:

The Quintet has a loyal following in town, performing from coffee houses to the Community Auditorium, with an intriguing mix of styles. The group includes four TBSO members, the first three well known to Consortium audiences: leader/arranger Martin Blanchet on double bass and vocals, violinist Katie Stevens, clarinetist E-Chen Hsu, and percussionist Kevin Brohman, who will bring an interesting variety of sounds beyond drums. They will be joined by their guitarist, Mario Potestio, in a programme which mixes crossover and jazz. The driving force of this concert will be improvisation. Martin, Kevin, and Mario have extensive training and experience in the jazz scene. Mario, Thunder Bay-born, has spent many years studying, travelling, and performing with jazz greats. Martin Blanchet as leader feels fortunate to be able to combine both jazz and classical musicians, saying that this mix makes the group’s original sound, a crossover sound.

Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra’s Assistant Concertmaster Katie Stevens is known as Consortium’s lead Baroque/Classical violinist and has been performing regularly in our concerts for many years, but started playing jazz in 2015, greatly inspired by Stéphane Grappelli. The jazz groove has made her more complete musically. It’s interesting seeing her wearing a new hat!

TBSO clarinetist E-Chen Hsu has always loved listening to jazz and to how voices and instruments are used to change colour, convey emotion, and tell a story. She joined the jazz quintet in 2019, bringing a different tone to the group. In her own words:

As an orchestral player, we have to be able to play in many styles, not just ‘classical’… pop music, classic rock, Big Band, Dixie, Swing, Show tunes, movie tunes, world/folk music, as well as Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Haas and everything in between. All of this I can do and I am generally comfortable with, especially when playing with an entire symphony orchestra.

Playing in a jazz quintet is another thing altogether for me. It has a different energy.  It is basically chamber music, but the rules are sometimes different and less predictable. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to play in an ensemble that ONLY plays Jazz. It’s a lot of fun, I’m constantly learning new things and I am grateful for the opportunity to grow as a musician.

Café Paris is one of Thunder Bay’s premier jazz ensembles, featuring some of the city’s most diverse and talented musicians, and creating and performing various shows, including ‘Café Paris’, ‘Sharp Ninth’, ‘Manouche’, and ‘Mini-Café’. Formed in 2015, it is one of many bands performing under the banner of the Martin Blanchet Jazz Quintet.

The Quintet itself engages in widespread activity about town, appearing as featured artists with the TBSO, Arts and Heritage Awards, Canada Day Celebrations, Live at the Waterfront, Folklore Festival, Franco-Festival, Club Culturel Francophone, Magnus Theatre, Centr’elles, Centre Francophone de Thunder Bay, Lakehead University, the City of Thunder Bay, and many more. They have a keen interest in French-influence jazz, hence their current programme!

Jazz came to France in 1917 with American WWI soldiers but was quickly espoused by Parisians. Django and Grappelli met in 1931, forming their Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934. Django, of Romani blood, lost the use of two fingers of his left hand at age 18 through an accident, but developed amazing agility with his first two. He’s remembered for his innovative, virtuosic technique, unbelievable velocity, gypsy-jazz fusion compositions, and improvised melodic solos, moving beyond chords to being a lead voice. “One feels an extraordinary flame burning through every note.” Woody Allen’s 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown stars Oscar-nominated Sean Penn playing a self-confident jazz guitarist who idolizes Django Reinhardt; his original music is heard in the film. Penn actually took guitar lessons so as to appear convincing!

Django’s influence was enormous and far-reaching, even up to the modern guitarists of Grateful Dead and Black Sabbath, who had also lost fingers in accidents. Many tributes to Django have been written and recorded over the years. Gypsy Jazz has gained in popularity. American guitarist John Jorgenson had this to say:

Django’s guitar playing always has so much personality in it, and seems to contain such joy and feeling that it is infectious. He also pushes himself to the edge nearly all the time, and rides a wave of inspiration that sometimes gets dangerous…Probably the thing about this music that makes it always challenging and exciting to play is that Django raised the bar so high, that it is like chasing genius to get close to his level of playing.

Grappelli, “grandfather of jazz violinists”, established the violin as a solo jazz instrument, as Katie Stevens will demonstrate. He emulated street musicians at first, but then studied music theory formally at a conservatory for a while when young. He busked at age 15 and accompanied silent films in a theatre pit orchestra. He teamed up with Django Reinhardt on gypsy jazz at the Hot Club de France and at the Parisian artistic salon R-26 in Montmartre, but also partnered elsewhere. It was his partnering with Django that brought him fame. He played on 100’s of recordings, with many collaborations, touring extensively up until the year of his death at 89.

Stéphane Grappelli met classical concert violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a British tv chat show in 1971; they formed a jazz duo, subsequently recording three albums in this vein. Grappelli wrote out Menuhin’s parts, and improvised in jazz style around him, since Menuhin was untrained in jazz. I own two of those LP’s; they were my introduction to jazz violin. Grappelli’s instrument was made in Northern Italy in 1695 and would be perfect for the Italian Baroque string music Consortium often performs! Menuhin joined him on his Stradivarius, and said of Grappelli:

I was amazed and full of admiration for this way of playing the violin, which I had never heard before. It is both an improvisatory technique and a remarkable violinistic technique as well. It is something that happens spontaneously, as it were; yet he has a sureness of touch so that he never seems to be off the rails. He is like a wonderful juggler who throws plates and pots into the air and then catches them again.

The Martin Blanchet Jazz Quintet has evolved since it first saw the light, both in terms of repertoire and style, creating its own sound. Its concerts are now based more on written, specifically-arranged material, especially since the classically-trained musicians are capable of reading complex scores. And yet an improvisatory jazz feel is preserved. This is a step going beyond the earlier reliance on pure jazz improvisation.

Following successful crossover concerts with the TBSO, Café Paris is excited about their new venture in collaboration with Consortium Aurora Borealis. We, in turn, are proud to add our name to their list of appearances around town, as we love to champion fine local artists! The Martin Blanchet Jazz Quintet is all set to bewitch you. Cap your busy day off with an evening of smooth, relaxing, easy-listening strains!

Heartfelt thanks to our generous and most faithful Concert Sponsor: Robin Smith & Associates: CIBC Wood Gundy

Please take your time reading my words, in bits and pieces if you wish, even after the concert. I was totally new to the material presented here, so it was an interesting adventure dredging up all the information! The TBSO has a link to a free video of the Martin Blanchet Jazz Quintet’s Mini-Café concert, with nine of those pieces appearing on their programme for Consortium as well! This was how I was able to observe them in action and to hear their sound! If you are unfamiliar with this type of music, take heart and have a look and listen. My words may perhaps shed some light on things for you, and make the experience even more rewarding!

Here now is the link:

All the very best to you, and Happy New Year Wishes, as we greet 2023! May it be full of Good Things and Beautiful Music, as well as of course Health and Happiness!


P.S. I have come up with 7 great concerts for our 45th Concert Season, 2023-24, with two concerts firmly planned already for September 16 (Doris Dungan, flute and myself on harpsichord, all-Baroque, at St. Paul’s United) and September 30 (Gryphon Trio, at Trinity United, with their lovely piano).

More details will be available later, but please plan to renew or purchase a season pass!
The price remains the same: $150 for 7 in-person concerts; $90 for students. Passes are completely transferable!

I am really excited about this, and I hope you will be too! I continue selecting the repertoire!

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