Classical-Jazz Mix Is Obsessive Lure For Alberta Eight

Obsessions Octet performing in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in October 2012.
Classical meets jazz: Obsessions Octet performing in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in October 2012.
By Bill Rankin

EDMONTON, Alberta — The Edmonton hybrid ensemble Obsessions celebrated its 10th anniversary on June 8 at the city’s Yardbird Suite, a three-decade-old, internationally recognized jazz venue. Part of Kent Sangster’s Obsessions Octet must have felt right at home in the dimly lit jazz club, where combos consisting of saxophone, piano, bass, and drums are a mainstay. But the other half of the ensemble, a string quartet, were a less typical sight.

The members of Obsessions Octet outside Carnegie Hall in October 2012.
The members of Obsessions Octet outside Carnegie Hall in October 2012.

Kent Sangster’s Obsessions Octet has found an original take on chamber music. Any eight instruments played together makes an octet, but notions of what those instruments should be vary greatly, depending on whether we’re talking classical or jazz music. The late Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time had no standard symphonic instruments; Schubert’s F Major Octet calls for nothing but. Edmonton-based Obsessions bridges the worlds of jazz and classical timbres uniquely, and the ensemble’s concept has won over audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

A decade ago, Sangster heard bandoneonist Daniel Binelli, a cohort of Astor Piazzolla, play the Argentine’s tango music with the Edmonton Symphony, in which Sangster’s wife is a violinist. Sangster, a graduate of the University of Miami’s jazz arranging program, imagined himself playing the bandoneon parts with his saxophone. He and his wife, violinist Joanna Ciapka-Sangster, had been looking for a way they could combine their different approaches to music to play together. He thought he’d found it.

The Obsessions project began in 2005 with modest ambitions. A local radio station was offering money for the production of some new music. Sangster applied, and with the cash the group made its first, self-titled CD, a mix of Piazzolla, jazz standards, such as “Skylark” and “Day and Night,” and two Sangster originals. Ciapka-Sangster, feeling they had nothing to lose, pushed her husband to submit the disc for a Juno, Canada’s Grammy. The album was nominated for Best Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year in 2007.

Obsessions Octet performing at St.Dominic Fair in Gdansk, Poland, in July 2014.
Obsessions Octet performing at St.Dominic Fair in Gdansk, Poland, in July 2014.

“It was a shock. We got the attention, and we never expected it,” Ciapka-Sangster said during an interview between Edmonton Symphony rehearsals.

Emboldened by the recognition, the Octet put out feelers for festival gigs, to no avail at first. But then a call came from Carnegie Hall, of all places. Two Edmonton musicians who had played the Carnegie Hall Festival Chamber Music Concert Series passed on the Obsessions’ package to the organizers, and the group got a slot in October 2012.

So successful was their well-reviewed Weill Recital Hall concert, a strictly acoustic performance, that the Carnegie promoters — who also have a relationship with the classical Festival of the Aegean on Greece’s Syros Island — invited them to the Greek festival, which caters to more traditional classical fans.

Last July, Obsessions packed up all their gear and, with the financial support of Edmonton’s jazz and classical community, headed for Greece to begin a three-country European tour that took them to Prague and several venues, classical and jazz, in Poland, Ciapka-Sangster’s birthplace.

Because all the octet’s musicians have day jobs playing and teaching (Sangster is also artistic director of the Edmonton International Jazz Festival), their rehearsal and performance schedule has been intermittent over the past ten years. The Carnegie engagement helped tighten the band, Ciapka-Sangster says, but it was the three-week tour last summer that really honed their sound and brought them closer together as a unique ensemble.

Octet member John Taylor has played popular and classical bass since his days at the University of Toronto studying with Toronto Symphony principal bass Tom Monohan. Taylor put himself through music school playing in rock bands. He was the only student in his class who had musical tastes outside the classical. He remembers telling some cohorts he’d bought a copy of Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew.” The response? “That sucks.”

Obsessions Octet founder Kent Sangster and his wife, violinist Joanna Ciapka-Sangster.
Kent Sangster and his wife, violinist Joanna Ciapka-Sangster.

Taylor still straddles both musical worlds. Beyond his anchoring role in the Octet, he teaches jazz at Edmonton’s MacEwan University, has played with the Edmonton Symphony for more than thirty years, and still gets called for other jazz gigs. Ciapka-Sangster calls Taylor “the pillar” of the octet and its musical “translator” because of his breadth. He has helped to unify the group. “The two quartets were sort of separate entities when we started,” he says, “and now we can play what used to throw some guys off in the band.”

And a decade ago, the jazz players would never have made suggestions on matters of dynamics, Ciapka-Sangster says. And of the classical quartet, she recalls with dismay: “We were just so shaky rhythmically. We’d get lost, and we’d look at John. For us, it was like, where’s the downbeat?”

What John explained to his Edmonton Symphony string section colleagues was that in jazz, the pulse stays the same, regardless of the rhythm. He describes the classical musician’s dilemma adapting to a jazz idiom: “In the rhapsodic aspect of classical music, there’s a push and pull of the time. The pulse actually moves. That’s where the two worlds clashed a bit.” In jazz, the pulse remains steady even if the rhythms among players change.

Ciapka-Sangster describes the string quartet’s frustration in the early days: “So we would think [the jazz players] were slowing down because we’re so used to following the soloist, following as opposed to going for it, leading like a metronome. The time is always the same, and that was the hardest.”

Touring was the best thing they could do to gel, Taylor and Ciapka-Sangster say. Besides being their own roadies, having to adapt to new playing conditions at every new venue helped the group increase their cohesion, musically and otherwise. They are hooked on touring and hope to do more next summer.

Kent Sangster’s Obsessions Octet — he has considered dropping his name from the title — will make a third album in the fall; its second one is called Melodia, and it has a similar mix as Obsession. Sangster has a taste for funk and R&B, besides the standards and the Piazzolla they’ve been playing. So there will be new challenges on both sides of the musical divide. But no one expects any conversions from this melding of forms. Taylor is likely to remain the only ecumenical member of the band.

Ciapka-Sangster points out that the classical players will never become effortless improvisers, and the jazz players will continue adapting to the perfectionist impulse of the classical musicians.

“We are two worlds crossing over,” she says. “Everybody is doing what they are best at. The symphony players bring perfection, the textures, but the jazz guys are good at improvising. We’ve learned so much about the rhythm. They’ve learned so much about our world.”

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.