Selecting Musicians

When selecting musicians for a band or recording project, I generally start with the rhythm section. However, this project was different.

Over the years, I have written dozens of hymn arrangements which have been played in many churches of numerous denominations. Even so, I was hesitant to record these pieces until I found the right vocalist. Don’t get me wrong…  there have been plenty of skilled church singers with whom I have performed. But in most cases, jazz wasn’t really their thing.

Vocalist Attributes

Karly Epp, singing in rehearsal with Earl MacDonald's ensemble.

Canadian vocalist, Karly Epp

In a vocalist collaborator, I sought a jazz equal; someone who:

  1. knew the style intimately.
  2. could site their favorite Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington records (among others).
  3. was familiar with contemporary jazz singers like Norma Winstone, Dianne Reeves and Kate McGarry.
  4. wouldn’t look at me like a deer in headlights if I asked for a flat fifth on a dominant chord.
  5. didn’t need coaching regarding phrasing and interpretation.

Beyond all of this, I hoped to find someone who had a personal connection to the hymns. This would ensure the delivery came across as informed, yet authentically sincere. Knowing this list was a tall order, I put this project on the back burner for a few years. I was in no rush.

Manitoba Master Class

In 2017, I was invited to give a jazz master class at the University of Manitoba, in my hometown of Winnipeg. Before giving my presentation, I played two selections with Professors Karl Kohut and Larry Roy. Larry and I are old friends, but this was my first time playing with Karl. I remember being thoroughly impressed with his bass playing.

The talk I gave mostly focused on “By Our Love,” my new arrangement of the song, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” I led a conversation about the paradoxical relationship between Christianity and political tribalism in the United States. Both the students and attending faculty were highly engaged — asking questions and expressing opinions. Impressively, these Canadian students could identify incongruities between GOP policies and commonly upheld Biblical principles. They listed immigration, climate care, caring for the poor and the unwavering Evangelical support of a Trump — an individual they pinpointed as representing the antithesis of Christ’s teachings. Having such strong views about American politics, they were curious to hear how these incongruities were programmatically represented in my arrangement. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun! Amongst those in attendance was the university’s new vocal instructor, Karly Epp to whom I was briefly introduced upon my arrival.

Setting the Stage

Karl Kohut, playing the string bass in a rehearsal with jazz pianist, Earl MacDonald

string bassist, Karl Kohut

After the master class presentation, Larry, Karl, Karly and I went to Earls restaurant (the name is just a coincidence), a favorite Western-Canadian restaurant chain. As musicians typically do, Larry and I recounted some colorful stories from our shared musical past. But Karl & Karly, who are married and a generation younger than Larry and me, didn’t seem to share our affinity for story telling. I later spoke with Larry about this, and questioned if he thought this was a trait of younger, millennial-aged musicians. He downplayed this notion, emphasizing that Karl & Karly were both just “serious musicians and teachers” who were equally committed to their Christian faith. I found that nugget of information interesting. I filed it away, along with the knowledge that Epp was a common Manitoban Mennonite surname.

Discovering Karly

That evening, I googled “Karly Epp” to see if I could find samples of her singing. What I heard blew me away! Musically, she was the complete package; she had an informed style, great intonation, and taste (no “schmalzy” ego-driven antics)! I learned she also studied with one of my most influential teachers, Jim McNeely, while at the Manhattan School of Music. It dawned on me that I just might have found the singer I previously imagined, but whose existence I doubted. So, the jazz hymn project rose from the bottom of my project pile to become an area of renewed focus.

Upon returning to Connecticut, I called Karly and Karl to pitch the project and to “feel out” their level of interest. Both were enthusiastic! Moreover, my question regarding her familiarity with hymns was answered. I learned that Karly grew up singing them, as her grandfather was a retired pastor! Booya!! With one phone call I had a singer PLUS a first-rate bassist lined up!

Rogerio & Kris

Percussionist Rogerio Boccato and saxophonist Kris Allen were easy choices for filling out the band. They have both been longtime collaborators within my Creative Opportunity Workshop (COW) band. We previously recorded the “Mirror of the Mind” album together. Rogerio brings magic to everything he touches. By breathing new life and surprising elements into every piece, he keeps me inspired and interested. Likewise, Kris is equally inventive and consistent in his solos. He is comfortably in-control on all saxes. Because Kris, Rogerio and I have led music together in a few church services, their involvement was a “no-brainer.”

Selecting Other Musicians

Initially, I had Canadian trumpeter, Ingrid Jensen in mind for this project. Building upon Kenny Wheeler’s style, she has forged a truly individualistic voice of her own. Additionally, I liked the idea of involving another woman in the ensemble, to balance out the group dynamic. Ingrid wasn’t available, but enthusiastically recommended Dave Smith to me. While participating in the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop, Dave played in the big band that sight-read our music. I remembered his tasteful solos. Again, I referred to the web to hear his recent work. His “Halloween Song” video is stellar! That he is also a fellow Canadian was icing on the cake!

For two pieces, I wanted to add some extra brass. Trombonist Sean Nelson leads the New London Big Band, with which I often play. Therefore I knew he’d perfectly execute my trombone parts. Then for French horn, I called UConn alumnist Alex Gertner. Alex enrolled in my student ensemble for a couple of semesters, where he learned to phrase and articulate in a jazz context. Consequently, I hired him to play on my “Open Borders” album based on his work ethic and musical consistency. This would be a fun opportunity to reunite with him.

So, that’s how I went about selecting musicians for the “Consecrated” album. In other articles, I will discuss the rehearsal and recording process.

Earl MacDonald's band, rehearsing prior to recording the album, "Consecrated."

L to R: Kris Allen, David Smith, Rogerio Boccato, Karly Epp, Earl MacDonald, Karl Kohut

The Band:

Here’s a list of the selected musicians, which includes links to their professional websites, should you wish to learn more about them:

Karly Epp – vocals
Kris Allen – alto, tenor & bari saxophones
David Smith – trumpet
Alex Gertner – French horn
Sean Nelson – bass trombone
Earl MacDonald – piano
Karl Kohut – string bass
Rogerio Boccato – drums, percussion

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