Calgary Creative Arts Ensemble adds a little Pepper to its repertoire

Orchestra will get back to its roots by performing 1959 classic Art Pepper + Eleven Saturday night as part of its program.

There are the roots and then there are THE roots.

You dig?

Well, you dig, and then you have to dig a little deeper.

Let’s take the case of the Calgary Creative Arts Ensemble and their performance this Saturday of Art Pepper’s classic 1959 recording Art Pepper + Eleven.

It will feature the local contemporary jazz orchestra performing all of the songs from the album, which featured the California saxman/band leader and his crew taking on 15 tunes by such notable composers as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver.

It is, admits co-founder and saxophonist Mark DeJong, a program that will be something of a departure for the CCMA, from its roots.

“When we started the Calgary Creative Arts Ensemble, I think our goal was primarily to explore original music — Canadian music,” says the artist while sipping a pint in the Wild Rose Taproom.

“We were all musicians on the scene that loved big band music, particularly contemporary big band music that maybe didn’t seem to find the light of day as frequently but no less deservedly than Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, etcetera, etcetera.”

He points to the first concert by the collective, which was a performance of the work of Bob Brookmeyer.

Unknown Object
The Calgary Creative Arts Ensemble will perform Art Pepper + Eleven on Saturday evening at Grace Presbyterian Church.

But dig a little deeper to the roots of the players that make up the members of the orchestra and, well, you’ll find that most of them were raised and trained on that same repertoire that they were attempting to offer an alternative to — material that they, DeJong says, “cherish, love and revere.”

It’s one of the reasons why they’ve made a performance of Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite a tradition with the CCAE, they didn’t want the classics to “fall out of the scope” of what they did.

Which brings us to the roots of Saturday’s concert of Art Pepper + Eleven at Grace Presbyterian Church, which, DeJong says, fits nicely into the “mentality and vision” of the CCAE.

It had been a regular suggestion of fellow co-founder and rhythm section lead Jon McCaslin, who’s a big fan Mel Lewis, drummer on that record.

“The album itself is great because it features the whole band. Art Pepper, of course, is the lead name but it really showcases a great collaborative spirit with a host of great players,” DeJong says.

“So John put it out there and all of us jumped on board and said, ‘Yeah, what the hell?’ Everybody knows it and everybody loves it.”

Unknown Object

But dig a little deeper and you find out that while being a much known and beloved album in the jazz world, it’s also adheres to the original goal of the CCAE.

While it is considered a classic, it was also released in a year that is acknowledged as the greatest in the history of the music, producing such masterpieces as Davis’s Kinda Blue and Sketches of Spain, Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out.

“It’s not the first album that most people thing of when they talk about their reverence for 1959,” says DeJong of + Eleven, “but it encapsulates all of those great qualities: incredible writing, incredible musicianship, a great level of camaraderie amongst the musicians — primarily Los Angeles-based musicians — but not to the typical West Coast description that has been ascribed to the West Coast jazz movement or feel.”

Now here is where those not as well versed in the jazz world — present company included — need to dig a little deeper, which Mr. DeJong is more than happy to help with.

The, “in air quotes,” West Coast jazz sound was one embodied by artists such as Stan Getz and Chet Baker, not necessarily Pepper and specifically not this work.

“The journalistic approach to West Coast jazz is that it was very melodic, it tended to be like the hot east coast jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie but slowed down,” he says.

“And where Art Pepper + Eleven defies convention is that it’s at breakneck tempos.”

That’s something that has proven to be both exhilarating and challenging for all of the orchestra’s members, who DeJong notes, are all “great players who can kick ass on every chair.”

And while they’ll all get a generous amount of solos throughout the program, DeJong will take on the Pepper part, which, initially, was something that he was obviously looking forward to — until they began to “dive into” the pieces.

“It’s absolutely scary as shit, because it’s hard,” he says. “It’s hard. It doesn’t sound hard when you listen to the recording, it doesn’t sound hard. And all of great art is like that. You just go, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s awesome. It sounds amazing.’ And then when you dig into it you realize … ‘We’re in deep shit.’

“It’s been pretty fun,” he says. “And it’s scary …”

Which is, if we’re going to keep on digging, a whole lot closer to yet further from the beginnings of the Calgary Contemporary Arts Ensemble when it first became an idea, before it even had a goal. It was when DeJong — who had just returned to the city after some time away — and McCaslin were playing with another group in the scene more than a half-decade ago and it came during a discussion they had on a performance break.

“I said to him, ‘You know, John, we should start a big band,’” DeJong says. “And he gave me a hug.”

He continues with a laugh. “Here we are five years later, playing Art Pepper, getting our asses handed to us.”

Dig it.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at