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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Sang Froid, Nu-Jazz Records, McGill Jazz Orchestra, Gordon Foote, Director.

It has become a bit of a tradition for the McGill Jazz Orchestra to swing into the studio each year and lay down some fine big band arrangements. Culled from two years of recording sessions, Sang Froid is their sixth release so far, following on critically lauded (and undersold) discs like Something Personal and Poppin' the Cork.

Yes, this is a student band, but don't let that label deceive you. The premiere ensemble of McGill's jazz studies program, the Orchestra has performed throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe (and just returned from a gig at the Festival Internacional de Jazz in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico) -- they've garnered raves wherever they set up their horns. They've also won numerous awards in their festival and recording experiences: their previous CD placed second on Cadence magazine's top ten list of big band discs and was named one of the 20 best big band releases available by the webzine Jazz, in the company of luminaries like Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson. And recently, they were invited to play at the prestigious Jazz Educators Conference in New York in January, one of only five bands chosen from an international big band cattle call.

Sang Froid again finds the MJO, led by director Gordon Foote, in professional form, swinging through a variety of material that includes some unusual choices for the big band sound -- a Pat Metheny ballad, a Celtic-influenced piece by Toronto trumpeter John MacLeod -- as well as more standard and tastily executed jazz like Sammy Nestico's "Basie Straight Ahead" and Matt Catingub's "Bopularity."

The CD's title track is an original composition by graduate D'Arcy Argue, BMus'97, an adventurous modern piece featuring nice flugelhorn work from Andy King, BMus'01 (who shines on other tracks as well), and surprising, picaresque charts. While the last two tracks on Sang Froid are a bit ponderous, the band is tight and effectively moody. There is livelier fare sprinkled throughout, including the opening track, "Ticker," and "Thing," former McGill teacher Bret Zvacek's arrangement of "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," described as "Ellington meets the WWF" (!). All in all, another body slam from Gordon Foote and the McGill Jazz Orchestra.

Paris to the Moon, Random House, $37.95, by Adam Gopnik, BA'80.

Whoever has lived in Paris knows that it is at once exhilarating and exasperating. As if that which exasperates -- insanely oppressive bureaucracy, arbitrary rules vigorously upheld as grand principles, haughtiness in response to the most banal transactions -- is justified penance for living in the midst of so much to exhilarate -- physical beauty, ever-present history and culture, inviting cafes, sumptuous cuisine. For the most part it is, because, as Adam Gopnik proclaims, Paris is "the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been"; one that is "all the more a miracle, given the obstacles the French put in its way."

Paris to the Moon (the title comes from a satirical 19th century engraving) is an account of the five years, beginning in 1995, Gopnik spent in Paris on assignment for The New Yorker magazine, where much of the book originally appeared in essay form. Unlike so many journalistic memoirs of time spent abroad, this is not a succession of vignettes of the major news items of the time, nor a collection of sketches of the grands hommes/femmes of local politics and the arts.

Instead, it is a far more affecting and closely watched portrait of a city and a civilization from the perspective of a man experiencing a mythical place from within the throes of family life. In observing his young son's assimilation, for instance, he gains more insight into the immigrant's insecurities than the dispassionate interviewer could ever extract. Gopnik's ill-fated involvement in an idealistic, populist effort to save a historic brasserie he patronized from being engorged by a chain is a touching illustration of romantic Paris clashing with practical Paris.

Gopnik is such an astute and elegant pundit that the former Montrealer disappoints when he frequently reduces his commentary to comparisons between Paris and America. One can only conclude that he does this as a means of relating with his New Yorker readers, since he concedes the limited value of the equation, given that Parisians are "not being 'like' anything, but just busy being, like everything else."

Nonetheless, Paris to the Moon is a wonderful, thoughtful reflection on "the sublunary city" it is and the "celestial state" it inspires.

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