RBC Ottawa Bluesfest: Mike Essoudry polishes up a big brass band

The Bank Street Bonbons in action at The Rainbow. That's Mike Essoudry on the drum kit.

Mike Essoudry is a man of many bands.

The Ottawa area percussionist is involved in seven active ensembles of all shapes and sizes. And he has been involved in many more defunct ones over his career. It is the life of an in-demand percussionist.

All these other commitments aside Essoudry’s current primary focus is on his brass band project The Bank Street Bonbons.

There’s something about the sound of a brass band that turns Essoudry’s crank. It started some 20 years ago at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

“My wife and I went to the festival and there was a brass band playing. It was first time I had ever seen one from New Orleans. It was unbelievable, it was so good.”

That initial brush with a big brass sound lodged in Essoudry’s musical heart, but it took a few years to emerge.

“Around 2010 I got the idea I would make one.” The result was popular party band The Mash Potato Mashers which “started off playing more of a Balkan brass band musical sound.” Essoudry loves that style of band music which is built on the many different traditions of Eastern Europe including klesmer and gypsy music.

“I liked the energy of that music,” he said.

He got his whistle wet, but all bands have a shelf life it seems and the Mashers wrapped in 2014.

Two years before that, Essoudry returned to the idea of the music of New Orleans as a result of a trip he and his wife made to the Big Easy. It was their very first visit. (We should say here that Essoudry’s wife is the equally talented singer-songwriter Megan Jerome, who will play Bluesfest on July 6 in the Barney Danson Theatre at 6 p.m.).

“We went there in 2012. For my wife it was an important trip. Her mother had passed away and she took a trip there for a month by herself. I joined her for two weeks. I had always wanted to go. When she said ‘I want to go,’ I said ‘I am going to join you for sure.’ It was unbelievable.”

He got to see the New Orleans sound in its home.

“Music just permeates every part of that city.”

Essoudry came home recharged and ready for a new adventure.

The result, eventually, was The Bank Street Bonbons.

“It’s drums plus horns. It’s such a powerful sound. We have two alto saxes (Tyler Harris and Zakari Frantz), two trumpets (Nicholas Dyson and Ed Lister), two trombones (Ryan Purchase and Michael Shultz), a Sousaphone (Keith Walton) and drums.”

One thing that has also impressed Essoudry about the brass band tradition is the idea that these bands get off the stage and mix with the people in parades. He calls them mobile bands.

“The brass band I had before was a mobile band. Being right in with people; that’s a pretty remarkable thing. It’s not done much in Canada. But the more I dug into brass band music I discovered that it is all around the world in places such as India and Brazil, all over Europe.”

His current band is not parading quite yet, but he says they will.

The Bonbons are opening the 2018 version of Bluesfest on July 5. It is fun to dream that maybe one day they will parade into the festival grounds.

He also says he intends to add a second drummer this summer to further enhance to the power of the sound.

Essoudry’s musical journey began in the basement of his family home where his tolerant parents never balked at the sounds coming u from below.

He didn’t study music at J.S. Woodsworth Secondary School. He took visual arts and learned to play the drums on the side. The classes conflicted and he didn’t have the necessary credits from Grade 7 and 8 that he needed to take music in high school. So he did it his way.

He started playing in a blues band with some high school friends and by Grade 12 the band was playing in bars in Hull.

“Those were my first musical experiences. We’d get to school Friday morning and be totally tired because we had been playing until 3 a.m. the night before. I was 17, 18… This was back in the late ’80s. You could be 14 with one whisker on your chin and you’d get in.”

He played at a bar on Eddy Street. It was a pretty dodgy place, he said. “I’m pretty sure there was illegal gambling going on in the back.”

But in Grade 13, Essoudry joined the high school music program. They needed a drummer and he got the gig.

Over the next several years he tried various study tracks including recording engineering and science but eventually the drum beat of his life came calling. He went to McGill where he would graduate in 2003 with a Master of Music degree in Jazz Drumset Performance at age 33.

He did all that despite not reading music all that well. But he knew how to play and he could pick up what was needed.

“I have never learned to read music very well and I do run into situations where I wish could read better. Occasionally I get asked to play big band charts, but nothing instills terror in me like sitting down with some.”

He was a natural improviser anyway and that very much suits him.

After finishing up at McGill, Essoudry was married and the couple decided to move to Ottawa.

They are happy they did.

“We have built a place here. Sometimes it is hard see things happening in Toronto or Montreal but it’s OK — I’m here now. We live in a nice house in a nice neighbourhood. We both have cars and we both have jobs we like.” And he likes the look of the Ottawa music scene.

As for the Bonbons, his band is playing more funk, afro-beat and New Orleans style music. The name is getting around and they have an album out called Move. They were part of the Ottawa Jazz Festival lineup this summer and now they are at Bluesfest.

“We are still working on our stage presentation,” he said, but there is one thing he won’t be doing. “No suits. I don’t want to go with a costume.”

Running a band is a lot of work Essoudry says. He writes all the music. And then there are his other jobs:

“I’m leading one other band and I also accompany dancers working with (Ottawa’s) Propeller Dance.”

And he is also a working handyman. He’ll put up dry wall, replace windows and do other home repairs and renovations. The money from construction pays off a lot of bills. It’s all part of being a working musician. You need options.

“I would like to do less construction because I’m getting a little long in the tooth. I don’t want to be loading drywall in forever.”

The Bank Street Bonbons
Where: RBC Ottawa Bluesfest Claridge Homes Stage
When: July 5 at 6 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawabluesfest.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.