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Transcona student set to take on Big Apple

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Devon Gillingham is making a musical splash.

The Transcona Collegiate Grade 12 student recently won the inaugural Essentially Ellington Gerhard W. Vosshall Student Composition/Arranging Contest for his composition Remember to Forget.

For winning the contest, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will record his piece as part of the Essentially Ellington Festival in New York City from May 10 to 12.

Gillingham said the piece was one he had started in the summer with an alto saxophone rhythm line, but had left it in the wind until he heard about the contest, which inspired him to complete it.

"It’s easy to start a tune or start an idea, but to write something from start to finish that’s presentable to people to play can be tough," said Gillingham, who listed the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s Vitoria Suite as his prime influence on his winning entry, with its swing and Latin touches. "It’s easy to get distracted, start 10 things, and not be able to finish any of them."

Gillingham began his foray into jazz by arranging two pieces by other artists before composing his first piece, clocking in at over 13 minutes, last summer. Rather than trim it to meet the contest’s specifications, he opted to come back to Remember to Forget. He said he’s still getting a handle on composition.

"I don’t have a set way of doing things. I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing all the time, but it comes together at the end, however it works out – just going through each section and seeing what each section needs, building off of one idea," he said. "If there’s one idea for a background, then you can figure out how to voice that in the melody, or figure out which colours of the band will work."

Gillingham and Transcona Collegiate music teacher Daniel Steinhilber met when Gillingham was in Steinhilber’s Grade 6 band at John W. Gunn Middle School. Shortly after, Steinhilber invited Gillingham to join the newly-formed East Side Jazz Band to play bass, even though Gillingham had never played the instrument.

Steinhilber told Gillingham to write a "straightforward" piece for the contest, but the end result was anything but. He said Gillingham is driven to succeed.

"He’s so persistent and passionate about music. Oftentimes, he says he’ll be the last one home in the evening. The lights will be off and everyone will be in bed because he’s out gigging or working as an accompanist for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet or MTYP (Manitoba Theatre for Young People)," said Steinhilber.

Steinhilber recalled when the two attended a Roy Hargrove concert two summers ago, and he jokingly suggested to Gillingham he arrange Hargrove’s last tune of the evening, Soulful. With no official recording of the tune, Gillingham found a radio show performance on YouTube, and produced an arrangement for the East Side Jazz Band.

Gillingham has been writing since he was in grade school, and he started up rock band Kobalt in 2005 with father Simon, mother Shelley, and sister Dallas. The band’s lineup has changed, as the elder Gillinghams have stepped aside for younger musicians Mike Fox and Andrew Chudley. As well, the addition of trumpeter Andrew Littleford helped Kobalt’s sound evolve into jazz-rock fusion, as shown on their new EP Waiting, which was released in January.

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