Mark Ferguson is a trombonist, pianist, composer, arranger, producer and music educator at Carleton University. He’s worked with great artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole and Rosemary Clooney. These days he is part of a new ensemble with Mike Tremblay (reeds), bassist Dave Young and drummer Terry Clarke. The quartet will play at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 26. Before the show Mark answered some questions from ARTSFILE about the new group and about his life in music.
Q. Tell me a bit about the quartet?
A. Mike and I recorded a duo album in 2009 which was half originals and half tunes associated with Bill Evans. For several years we’ve talked about following it up with an album of original tunes. We discussed doing another duo album but decided to ask two of our heroes, Dave Young and Terry Clarke if they’d be interested in recording with us. We were very happy that they agreed to do it.
Q. There is a record produced. What’s on it?
A. The album is called Appleface. The title refers to the horse that Mike and his wife Samantha own. All the tunes on the album were written by me or Mike. A lot of the music takes advantage of the fact that Dave and Terry can swing like no one else. So much contemporary jazz is played in a straight-eighth way. I love it, but it doesn’t tend to swing. When I do high school clinics I notice that the young musicians sound great playing straight eighth jazz arrangements but have a lot of trouble with swing rhythms. The music on our album is mostly swinging.
Q. You work with lots of people. Is that something you seek out or is it more organic?
A. I like variety. I think working with lots of people comes from making a living as a freelance musician. I rarely turn down an opportunity to play and it leads to collaborating with many different musicians.
Q. How long have you known and worked with Mike?
A. I’ve know Mike since I moved to Ottawa from Toronto in 1987. We’ve worked together in many different situations including jazz quartets, big bands, wedding bands, theatre pit bands, symphony orchestras, etc. etc. We even played hockey together. We’re very like-minded when it comes to music. I like his approach to jazz and it’s always a comfortable fit when we play together.
Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.
A. I grew up in Ottawa and moved to Toronto when I was 20 to attend Humber College. I moved back to Ottawa when I was 29 to finish my degree at Ottawa university with the intention of living in Toronto after that. I met my wife here and decided to stay. I prefer the more relaxed atmosphere of Ottawa and I’m still able to travel to Toronto and Montreal to work with the musicians in those cities.
Q. You have worked with some pretty famous folks. What did these folks teach you?
A. I worked with a lot of great people (including Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Nelson Riddle, Rosemary Clooney) as a part of the house band at the Royal York Hotel’s Imperial Room. It was the end of the era of CN Hotels featuring world class entertainment six nights a week. It was an education to see how people like Ella and Tony would change their acts very slightly from night to night to fit the audience. Once I developed a reputation in Toronto a lot of gigs came my way by word of mouth.
Since I’ve lived in Ottawa I’ve been called to tour with people like Holly Cole and the Funk Brothers.
Q. What’s your primary instrument, trombone or piano?
A. I started on piano. I recommend to all my students that they learn to play the piano, regardless of what their principle instrument is. When I moved to Toronto I decided to concentrate on trombone so I didn’t let it be known that I was also a pianist. When the studio scene started to dry up for horn players, I took a lot of lounge gigs on piano. There was a lounge circuit in those days and I could work every night, usually accompanying singers. Now my professional life is comprised of equal parts trombone, piano and teaching.
Q. Are you more of a big band, stage band kind of guy?
A. Playing trombone in big bands was what originally attracted me to playing jazz. I’ve played in “avant-garde” or “free jazz” situations and enjoyed it, but I prefer to have more structure in music.
Q. A big part of your life is teaching. How you start and why do you do it?
A. Like many musicians, I turned to teaching as a way to make a living. There are not as many gigs as there used to be. I started by teaching private lessons on trombone and piano and then progressed to leading the jazz ensemble at Carleton University and eventually was asked to teach there. I have also taught jazz trombone at McGill University. I’ve learned so much from teaching and have formed great relationships with students. It seems like a natural progression at this point in my career. It sounds cliche but it feels good to share my knowledge and give back to the musical community.
I teach jazz theory and orchestration classes. I usually have 3 or 4 performance students each year as well and I run the jazz ensembles.
Q. What’s the key to teaching jazz well do you think?
A. Each student comes to me with different strengths and weaknesses and I try to tailor the lessons to fit the student. I find that many students have not been exposed to a lot of different kinds of music so we do a lot of listening and transcribing. As Dave Liebman said “the answers are all in the music!” I try to be positive and encouraging as well as being honest with the student.
Q. The quartet: what’s the way forward for this project?
A. The quartet has performed at the Rex Hotel in Toronto and we’ll be at the MainStage of the Ottawa Jazz festival opening for Brad Mehldau on June 26th. We performed at our CD release earlier this month at the Unitarian Church in Ottawa. We are going to continue to apply to jazz festivals and my hope is that we can perform several times a year and add new original material to our repertoire.
Ferguson / Tremblay / Young / Clarke
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: TD Main Stage
When: June 26 at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawajazzfestival.com