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Trumpeter puttin' on the Rex in Winnipeg

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Trumpeter John MacLeod is bringing a taste of Toronto's popular Rex jazz club to Winnipeg, along with some swinging, bluesy big band charts.

The trumpeter, composer, arranger, band leader and teacher will perform with and conduct the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra in two concerts on Sunday, Feb. 17.

And besides top-notch band members to play his arrangements, he'll find a stage big enough to hold them.

Asked about the logistics of fitting a 20-piece band on a small stage in a bar, he says: "The trick for me is to stay out of the way. The Rex staff sets up chairs and microphones for the rhythm section, trumpets and trombones on the stage. The saxophones, french horns, guitar and the leader are out on the floor. It works out surprisingly well, except that I sometimes have to move out of the way to allow waiters or patrons to walk past me."

At the Winnipeg Art Gallery he'll have the luxury of a stage big enough to hold the musicians, risers and room enough for him to conduct the band.

The trumpeter formed John MacLeod and the Rex Hotel Orchestra eight years ago and approached several Toronto jazz clubs with the idea of featuring an all-star big band once a month.

The Rex owner Bob Ross, and the manager, liked the idea from the start, MacLeod says in an email exchange.

"I don't think (Tom, the manager) realized at first how great the band was going to be or that we would quickly develop the kind of following that we have, but he was always totally supportive," MacLeod says.

"To attract and hold onto the quality of player I wanted, I knew that I needed a situation that would be fun and rewarding for the players with a minimum of time commitment and some kind of financial return. I wasn't interested in starting a rehearsal band which only performed occasionally.

"The Rex itself is a pretty casual place. It's the people that make it special."

Big bands are not easy to maintain; they're unwieldy and expensive and only keep going because the musicians want to play complex musical arrangements.

MacLeod has been writing big band music "seriously for about 20 years -- long enough to have started before any of my university students were born -- yet I feel like I've just begun. I've never been very ambitious as far as worldly success -- you know, fame and fortune. Having the band perform once a month gives me a reason to keep on writing and trying to progress. When other gigs do come along, as several have this year, it's more than I expected. Is it harder for me than it was for Rob McConnell 20 years ago? Perhaps, but it was never easy. Jazz is an art form, not business."

MacLeod is an alumnus of McConnell's Boss Brass, the big band that featured the cream of Canada's jazz musicians over its decades of existence.

MacLeod is bringing 14 pieces of music; some of his own compositions and arrangements of jazz standards.

Singer Helen White will join the band for a few tunes and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra french horn player Ken MacDonald will join the ensemble.

The WJO will have two rehearsals with MacLeod before the concerts, "which is two rehearsals more than my band ever gets," the trumpeter says.

"The charts that I write are meant to be fun to play for professional-level musicians. I know all of the guys in this band can play, so we won't require a ton of rehearsing. I'm just really looking forward to having a good time with these guys..." he adds.

MacLeod will conduct and perform with the WJO.

"One of the challenges I have had to meet as a leader is being able to deliver the goods when I am required to play a solo. Fortunately, good band leading is often about staying out of the way, so I try to do as much ensemble playing as I can to keep my chops warmed up.

"I usually give myself a few solos over the course of the night, but there are so many other players to feature that I don't like to hog too much of the limelight," MacLeod says.

The last piece planned for the program will sound familiar to fans of a certain age. I won't spoil it, but it will bring back some fond (and funny) memories.

The WJO presents A Night at the Rex on Sunday, Feb 17, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Winnipeg Art Gallery, tickets $32.50 / $15 students (includes GST) from McNally Robinson Booksellers, the WJO box office at 204-632-5299 and online at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2013 D3

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