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McGill professor brings the noise at Montreal’s l’Off Jazz Festival

For years, trumpeter, composer, professional bandleader, and McGill jazz professor Joe Sullivan has been instructing McGill students and connecting them with the greater Montreal music community. When he performs at the Segal Centre this weekend with the rest of the Joe Sullivan Big Band—plus special guests Lorne Lofsky and Kirk MacDonald—McGill students will have a chance to see the teacher put on a clinic.

But before he became a regular on Montreal’s stages, Sullivan made his way through the student ranks. Hailing from Northern Ontario, he began his career by playing in high school stage bands and went on to receive a bachelor’s in classical trumpet from the University of Ottawa, and a master’s degree in jazz studies from the New England Conservatory of Music.  After playing alongside celebrated jazz musician Vic Vogul for over 25 years, Sullivan founded the Joe Sullivan Big Band in 1998, which has since released three CDs and received numerous accolades. Widely praised throughout the Montreal jazz community, Sullivan’s band will be performing as a part of the city’s annual l’Off Jazz Festival this Sunday.

“L’Off’s mandate is to feature, first off all, only jazz, and very creative jazz,” Sullivan explained. “They try to get a cross section of different genres [and] subgenres. They’ll have some free music and some straight-ahead music and just a really broad mix of different things.”

Sullivan’s band plays a style of jazz that intersects both old and new techniques.

“[It’s] contemporary mainstream jazz,” Sullivan said. “Contemporary in the sense that [we] employ modern melodies and constructions and forms, but [it also has] a lot of the traditional elements like swing, blues […] influences that come from the jazz tradition.”

On Sunday, the Joe Sullivan Band will perform 17 pieces, 16 of which are Joe Sullivan’s original compositions. These include “Nightfall,” written for MacDonald’s Toronto-based band, and “Unfamiliar Surroundings,” highlighting the talented Montreal trumpeter Charles Ellison. Sullivan explained the challenges he faced when arranging the program.

“It’s always the hardest thing,” he said. “You try to create a good program with nice pacing, but at the same time, you want to get everybody to play. Not everybody sounds good in every type of situation either. You can’t just plug them in and say, ‘Oh this guy sounds good doing this.’ I write for the band. I write tunes with specific people in mind to play particular parts.”

Sullivan’s distinctive approach to composition also encourages members of the McGill Jazz Orchestra he directs—which he refers to as the McGill Big Band—to be imaginative and collaborative.

“When students write and perform for the McGill Big Band, we try to keep it creative,” Sullivan said.  “We don’t only play stock charts that are from the [United] States or wherever. We mix in our own creative, original work, too. And then there’s the fact that the best players in the Big Band often get called to sub in my professional orchestra.”

The crossover between the two bands also awards Joe Sullivan some creative opportunities of his own.

“I play a lot of my own music in the McGill Big Band and students write for the McGill Big Band,” Sullivan said “I can take material from my Big Band and bring it to the McGill band. I end up changing things and rewriting passages. It’s a nice interplay between the two orchestras.”

While Joe Sullivan often refines his compositions through performances and reworks his music to accommodate the soloists, many of the songs that will be performed at l’Off Jazz Festival are quite personal. In discussing his latest CD, The Joe Sullivan Northern Ontario Suite, Sullivan remarked, “I’ve always wanted to write a tribute to my homeland.”

His piece “Tiger Lily” recalls the solitary orange tiger lilies that stand out in the lush green of the summer forests, while “Abitibi Breeze” was conceived by channelling ice-fishing expeditions on the Abitibi.

“It’s a very windy lake so it’s a crazy tune,” Sullivan explained. “A very turbulent tune.”

The Joe Sullivan Big Band will be performing as part of the OFF Jazz Festival at the Segal Centre on Sunday, Oct. 5 at 8 PM. Tickets range from $25 to $30.

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