Award-winning Verdun-based saxophonist, composer and bandleader Beth McKenna may have grown up in rural Nova Scotia, but she has made her mark musically performing in and about her adopted hometown of Montreal.
The 28 year-old musician performed at the Montreal International Jazz Festival for the seventh straight year this past week. She’s currently working on a second suite with her 18-piece ensemble, the Beth McKenna Jazz Orchestra, while holding down a day job as a recruiter at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business and pursuing other musical projects.
The rich, textured sound of McKenna’s arrangements resonates equally well in the cozy confines of La Maison 2109, where she performed last week with other composers as part of a jazz festival jam session, and on the TD Stage, where McKenna and her orchestra gave a breakout performance of her eight-part suite Home: Montreal last year as part of the city’s 375th anniversary celebrations.
Love at first sounds
McKenna has been performing jazz since Grade 7, when she was looking for something challenging to do and signed up for her school jazz band. It was love at first sounds. “As soon as I realized there was something more than classical music, I just took off,” she says.
In New Glasgow, N.S., there weren’t many opportunities for young jazz musicians. At 17, she came to Montreal, the “jazz capital of Canada” to audition for McGill University’s jazz program.
“After the audition, I went back to my hotel room and cried, because I thought I bombed it,” she recalls. The judges, though, were impressed enough to admit her to the program.
Coming here, she recalls was “the most thrilling thing ever — I dived in headfirst. I was pretty much stripped down to nothing musically and built back up again.” She got to know the community jam session scene, made friends, joined student ensembles and learned to conduct and compose.
McKenna established her own orchestra in 2013 after being told, at an audition, that she had potential as a composer. “I like classic big bands, but they’re not my inspirations; my inspirations are modern jazz, fusion, indie, rock [or] cinematic composers, where each of their pieces tell a story. I love the textures a big band can bring…just using the scores as canvas and the musicians as paintbrushes,” she says.
She describes her own sound as “cinematic jazz-rock.” Her suite, Home: Montreal, will resonate (literally) with anyone who has spent time in the city. “I’m an observant person, and I basically convert what I see into music,” she says.
She began piecing the suite together by improvising while going back through photos from long walks through the city.
“The eight pieces are a concert illustration of Montreal, from coming over the bridge from the South Shore, to the Old Port, to an afternoon in Parc La Fontaine, to downtown [which includes] a free improv part based on construction…Plateau Mont-Royal, Pie-IX and the Olympic Stadium…the seventh movement is St-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles, and the last is the sendoff.”
The suite won a prestigious OPUS award from the Conseil québécois de la musique in 2017. “When you’re up against all your mentors in an award category and you win…you could hear my brain screaming,” she recalls, eyes wide at the memory.
Her current composition project, a full-length album called Spaces Beyond Here, brings the same images-into-sound approach to “social and political topics,” looking through a musical lens at global inequality and the North Korean nuclear standoff.
“People think that big band is like Moonlight Serenade or really out-there art music…but it can groove, it can rock and it can speak to people.”