This was originally posted February 1, 2013
It is always sad when you lose someone important in your life. Over the years the Vancouver jazz community has lost many great players who I admired for both their musicianship and character - Fraser MacPherson, Stew Barnett, Dave Robbins, Chris Nelson, Bob MacDonald, Lew Hilton, Bill Trussell. These were all musicians I worked with and I treasure my musical and personal experiences with them all. The latest to leave us was the multi-talented tenor saxophonist and pianist Ross Taggart.
I first met Ross in September of 1986. He had just moved over to Vancouver from Victoria and was eagerly searching out opportunities to play. I had never heard of Ross but he showed up at Capilano College (now Capilano University) to audition for the big band I was directing at the time. Ross played some very fine tenor saxophone for me, he read well and soloed up a storm. I was impressed with what I heard. At the end of the audition I would always ask saxophone players what else they played, meaning do you play flute, clarinet or even oboe? Ross didn’t hesitate and said, “I also play piano.” A little surprised I said, “OK, why don’t you play something for me?” I don’t remember what he played, but I do remember enjoying what I heard. He joined the band that fall as the piano player and stayed for the entire year. I guess what struck me then, and something that stayed with him throughout his career, was his amazing ability to combine a deep sense of the jazz tradition (he really knew the vocabulary) with a modern adventurousness.
I continued to hear Ross perform in a great number of musical settings for the remainder of the 1980s. Ross then headed off to New York for a little while in the early 1990s and arrived back in town sometime in 1993. In the meantime I had personally been a little quiet on the local jazz scene, having disbanded my big band, The West Coast Jazz Orchestra, in early 1987. Coincidentally, I started up again around the same time Ross returned to Vancouver. I soon asked him to be the piano player and he remained in that chair until last fall.
Ross’ piano work with the band was always imaginative and often surprising. His very close friend saxophonist Campbell Ryga spoke warmly of Ross in a CBC radio interview and stated that Ross always played with great honesty. I would agree 100% with that assessment. Ross seemed incapable of playing a single insincere note. He was always totally absorbed in the sound and purpose of the music. His playing was never self-absorbed.
In 1999 I transcribed Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige, which took me about 5 months, for a fall concert. In the premiere performance of Duke’s epic 50 minute score, at Carnegie Hall in 1943, Duke improvised cadenzas at several points to help tie various sections together. I had been talking to Ross about the project and mentioned these piano cadenzas. Ross immediately volunteered to learn them himself, which was typical of his generous spirit. When we had our first rehearsal Ross played those cadenzas, note for note, like they were his own. In successive rehearsals the cadenzas began to evolve into something more personal, something more “Ross.” But what I found fascinating was, that no matter what new ideas he would bring to those cadenzas, Ross never lost sight of Ellington, both musically and pianistically.
In June of 2006 I recorded the CD The Fred Stride Jazz Orchestra: Forward Motion (Cellar Live). The CD was a representation of some of the music I had written for my band in the previous 4 or 5 years. The pieces don’t contain much in the way of singable melodies or even familiar II-V-I chord progressions. On top of that most of the rhythm section parts were fully notated, with very few chord symbols in sight. Ross, like the others in the rhythm section, did not take these notated parts as some sort of bible. They often played most of what I had written but added their own touches and ideas. For me, this is one of the great things about writing for a jazz orchestra, the addition of individual creativity. I find it fascinating to see and hear what good and sensitive rhythm sections might change and bring to my music.
Ross is all over that recording, comping through everything with an improvisatory daring. In concert settings I would often marvel at what he was playing and think that what I was hearing should not work. But Ross’ extraordinary musical sense of line and harmony was so strong and logical that everything he played worked beautifully. He was able to shape the complicated things I often wrote on the page into something greater and more meaningful. Hearing his playing I would often think - “Why didn’t I do that!” During the recording of the piece Floatation Device Ross mentioned he was having a problem with his back and he asked if it would be OK if he didn’t play the constantly repeating B flats that go on for several minutes. I said, “Sure. Once the trombones enter with their B flats you can stop”. Because of the studio setup I couldn’t clearly hear Ross so I was unaware of what he ended up doing. I assumed he stayed out, but when Torben Oxbol and I went to mix, a month or so later, I was amazed at what Ross had come up with. Ross was playing random B flats all through the opening section which created a wonderful pointillistic contrast to the rest of the band. Again Ross’ musical sincerity would not let him just step back and rest because his back was giving him trouble, he contributed a startling idea that made a major contribution to the performance.
On the same recording Ross played a solo on Oddly Enough. Listening to the playback after a final take Ross expressed he was not happy with his solo, he wanted to do another take. I however was thrilled with what he played - the lines, the rhythmic bounce and the very daring out-of-key funny quote near the end. For me this solo sums up a lot of Ross Taggart the musician and the person. We can hear his sense of musical tradition, his impeccable time and rhythmic sense, his vivid and creative imagination and, for those of us that spent anytime around Ross, his great sense of humour.
For the past 4 years the Fred Stride Jazz Orchestra has been performing my transcriptions and arrangements of music from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. Heading into our third performance in November 2011 Ross called me to ask if I would possibly consider adding Duke’s solo piano piece Meditation. I hesitated, as the one recorded performance I owned was a little too long for the existing program, but I didn’t dismiss his offer. Ross soon found a shorter version (Ross was a real jazz scholar and avid collector of all things jazz) and this version fit comfortably into the program. I never asked Ross to play the piece in any of the rehearsals, I knew he would have it down. I finally heard him play it for the first time in the concert. The placement of Meditation half way through the second half of the program, along with his sensitive playing, created a beautiful moment, moving everything down to a quiet, reflective few minutes before we built up again for the rousing conclusion of Praise God and Dance. Ross’ two and a half minute solo was sheer musical poetry.
Ross was booked to play in our November 2012 Duke Ellington Sacred Music concert in his hometown of Victoria. A couple of months prior Ross called to say he had been booked to play and record with jazz great “Tootie” Heath. Unfortunately, the recording session was scheduled for the morning of our Victoria show. I told Ross, that although I would miss him, it was fine for him to sub out and take advantage of this great opportunity. Ross, typically, would have none of that, he wanted to do both and he really wanted to play the Ellington music again. So he went away trying to figure out how he might do both. He called back a couple of weeks later to say the recording session was going to be done quickly and when it was over he would take a cab to the downtown heliport and fly to Victoria, and he might be about a half hour late for our afternoon rehearsal. I knew he had his part down so I said OK. Around the beginning of October Ross called again to talk about his plans for doing both gigs. He also told me he wasn’t feeling great, but he was still determined to play both gigs. I do know that Ross loved Ellington very deeply and for him to have another chance to play such great music was something he was not about let pass. We ended up having a long conversation, talking about all manner of things both personal and musical. It was a memorable conversation and it was the last time we ever talked. The day before I flew to Winnipeg for some concerts in mid-October I received word that Ross was in hospital. When I returned I was told that Ross would not be able to play any gigs in the near future. With quite a bit of effort I found a nice substitute, one of Ross’ students. At the concert in Victoria, when we got to the spot in the second half of the program for Meditation, I stopped the concert and announced to the audience that a dear friend of everyone performing in the show was not well and that we are dedicating the next piece to Ross Taggart. I then sat at the piano, with trembling hands, going over my feelings for Ross and thinking what a performance legacy he had placed in front of me. I did my best, but it was tough.
In a big city like Vancouver there are many great jazz piano players, but Ross was my hands down favourite. I will miss him. While Ross’ passing has put the Vancouver jazz community into a sad state, I know Ross would rather us go play some music than dwell too long on his passing.
RIP Ross Taggart