On the surface, Brian Asselin is a regular guy from Barrhaven.
But look closer. He’s a father, a teacher and a talented saxophone player … good enough to work with the legendary Funk Brothers for about four years.
And now he’s the band leader of the soul-pop big band The Commotions who will bring their high energy music to the Ottawa Jazz Festival in a couple of weeks.
“I was born and raised in Ottawa. I never really left even though I studied in Toronto. I used to wake up really early to catch a Greyhound bus to Toronto do my lesson and come home the same day on the bus.
“I have toured across Canada, in the U.S. and in Europe with various projects. The Commotions is the first time I have taken the reins with an outlet for my own music.”
Asselin got his musical chops as a jazz musician.
“I love jazz, but I was always more attracted to soul bands with horn sections. You can’t help it when you listen to that sound. You have to dance a little bit even rocking in the supermarket when people are looking at you weird.”
The Commotions is a dream realized, Asselin said, a dream took shape while he was with the Funk Brothers, the legendary session musicians from Detroit.
“I came home from those tours and I really wanted to take a stab at writing and performing my own material. I had always written pop music and I have always been intrigued by writing lyrics. I don’t sing but I have always loved writing lyrics, telling a story and watching it unfold. When I came back from that last tour in 2010 I wanted to write soul music. I had it in my mind that I was going to start my own soul project.”
So Asselin started writing and pretty soon he had four songs that he wanted to show someone. So he called up Delbert Nelson, who is the singer with the Funk Brothers.
He asked Nelson, “‘Would you come and record them with me and he said yes. I didn’t stop there. I wrote a whole album for him and there were 10 tunes. Delbert came up and recorded the album with us. We had tons of fun and then he went back to Detroit.”
The long distance musical love affair was a bit unwieldy and it ended after some festival gigs. But Asselin wasn’t done with the dream. Even though The Commotions went on a hiatus, he was busy writing more songs, dealing with daily life and assembling a new lineup.
Managing a band the size of The Commotions isn’t easy. There are many moving parts. But, Asselin says, “at the end of the day I put together a project with my best friends. That’s the way I look at it.”
He says the show he has put together is so scripted that even he is expendable, he says, if he has to miss a concert because of a conflict.
He’s very comfortable playing with his friends, he says. He’s known Rebecca Noelle for 15 years.
“I’m proud to have Jeff Rogers fronting the band. I have been playing with him since I was 12 years old.”
In fact many of the band members are from Barrhaven, Brian’s stomping grounds including Rogers, Noelle, Brian’s brother Jeff on drums and bass player Ken Seeley. Other members are: back-up vocalists Mackenzie DiMello, David Gaw on guitar, Clayton Connell on keyboards, Fred Paci on lead trumpet, Ed Lister on trumpet, Steve Berndt on trombone and Richard Page on baritone sax.
Typical of a band in Ottawa, the individuals in The Commotions all have other projects.
To be a band leader in this environment you have to be flexible, Asselin said.
“For me, my first priority is always the band. Are they happy? Are they having a good time? Are they challenged? I want them to know they are valued because to be honest they make me sound better than I really am. And it’s just a joy playing with them.
“I also have to respect fact that everyone has their own projects that are as important to them as The Commotions are to me. … I have been so lucky in Ottawa to work with so many inspiring musicians who have helped shape my way.”
One thing he doesn’t want to be is The Band Leader.
“You respect them, they respect you. I try to be fairly organized with the details by making sure people show up on time in the right clothes with the right music.
The band put out their second CD in 2017 which took another step toward melding influences from Asselin’s favourite horn bands such as Chicago and Tower of Power and from Motown.
The Motown theme is noticeable on stage. Everyone is in a purple suit, very reminsicent of the Detroit sound from the 1960s and ’70s.
“We just try to make people dance and have a good time. We try to bring in a lot of elements of pop music. I have written that my whole life.”
That begs a question about jazz.
“I love jazz. I studied it; my whole saxophone career is as a jazz saxophone player. But I always go back to Motown and not because I don’t like jazz. I want people to have a good time when I’m playing. There aren’t a lot of people dancing and grooving when I’m playing a jazz gig. I’m not putting it down at all but I love the energy I get from a crowd when we are on a Commotions gig.”
Despite that a Commotions show can tilt towards jazz with more improvisation and longer solos from the individual players, he said.
“We always try to play to the crowd, so if the crowd is expecting more improvisation, we would definitely open up the stage to more solos. One thing I love about the Ottawa Jazz Festival is that it does encompass a variety of sounds. It’s wide open. Some of my favourite shows I have seen at Jazz Festival are St. Paul and the Broken Bones last year. They killed it. And I was happy to see Charles Bradley once before he died.”
Asselin is a graduate of Confederation High School and he studied at Carleton in the music performance program. He’s played with Ottawa-based blues man JW-Jones and toured with Mark Ferguson and his big band.
He also obtained a teaching degree and is working at Algonquin College teaching music theatre and other courses. And he’s back in Barrhaven with his wife and daughter with a second child on the way.
Running a big band on makes for a lot of late nights on the computer trying to book some gigs and manage other business details.
He is also hoping to snag some more work with television and film production houses.
“We have had a couple of placements on ABC and HBO. It doesn’t pay that much but it gets your name around.”
This is not an easy road. “I applied to 50 festivals this year with the band and we got four. Hoping next year we will get 15. I want to get this band on stage as much as possible. We are doing the Jazz Festival, Kemptville Live, on same night as Beach Boys, the Stewart Park Festival in Perth and in Plantagenet.”
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: Top Shelf Main Stage, Marion Dewar Plaza
When: June 29 at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawajazzfestival.com