By Terry Pender
WATERLOO ON., Nov. 14, 2014 — After celebrating his 50th birthday this past summer Stephen Zurakowsky found a new sound he will share at The Jazz Room on Friday. Nov. 21.
The veteran classical-jazz guitarist and composer has a special night of live music planned. It features 10 funky-jazz compositions he wrote, three solo tributes to the great Canadian guitarist Lenny Breau and a talented vocalist for some standards.
“I wrote 10 new compositions specially for this night,” Zurakowsky says.
Joining Zurakowsky on stage Friday night — Greg Prior on bass, Ryan Cassidy on tenor sax and flute, Paul MacLeod on piano abd Giapaola Scatozza on drums.
Special guest Jane Cowan will join the band to do some standards, “to offset all the originals that I will be doing,” Zurakowsky says.
Zurakowsky is well known as the head of the Kitchener-Waterloo Classical Guitar Society. He teaches classical guitar. He plays jazz guitar with the Kitchener-based Big Band Theory. He’s played the Music Room in a classical-jazz duet with the guitarist James Brown.
“I started playing in Big Band Theory three years ago, and that’s what got my interest back into jazz,” Zurakowsky says. “I was enjoing reading in that band so much because the charts are so difficult, and then I found my jazz chops getting a little bit better.”
After turning 50 Zucharsky sat down and started writing new music. He wanted to compose jazz ballads bordering atonalism. Instead, he brought home the funk.
“I feel like I am crossing over,” Zurakowsky says. “It is edgy, ’cause that’s sort of my classical background, but it’s more melodic and it’s really, really funky. That’s why I got Giapaola to play drums, he’s from Toronto and this is sort of his speciaty.”
Previously, the soft-spoken classical guitarist released two solo recordings of original, moody music.Big City Quiet Moments and Four Trees in Winter. The beautiful, melancholic-austere sounds he attributes, in part, to his Ukrainian-Polish background.
“I am just changing. All of a sudden I felt like writing happy, fun music,” Zurakowsky says. “Maybe that sounds kind of weird, but the melancholy of the Ukrainian music, I think I just came to the end of a phase. And then all of a sudden, boom, all these funky rhythyms started to come out. It was a lot of fun.”
“I think when you are composing, you can’t necessarily control what is coming out,” he says. “It kind of just goes where it goes.”
He wrote the 10 new compositions in about six to eight months. The transition from solo classical guitar to composing for, and playing in jazz bands, is emancipating.
“It feels more free because when you play classical guitar there is every tiny little sound, every detail, but when you are playing in a group all those details from each person add up to the whole, so that way it feels more freeing,” Zurakowsky says. “And I like that spontaneous, improvising feel.”
When Cassidy plays flute he can also Beat Box at the same time, so Zurakowsky wrote some music to feature that — Hip Hop Blues, Funkelude and Prelude to the Jazz Groove.
“That beat boxing and flute playing is so cool.”
Prior is the bass player for Big Band Theory. Zurakowsky and Jane Cowan have known each other for a long time.
“She’s an incredible singer, again she is a cross between classical and jazz, so it is a good fit,” Zurakowsky says.
“I will be doing some solo work that night, and they are all tributes to Lenny Breau,” Zurakowsky says. “I think when I was in high school, and I heard that for the first time, one song, he combined so many genres like flamenco, jazz, blues and then classical right hand techniques, like tremulendo. I was so attracted to that.”
Lenny Breau was a pioneering Canadian fusion guitarist. Sadly, most music fans today know nothing about his important contributions to the Canadian guitar scene. Zurakowsky’s tributes Friday night will move from a Chet Atkins-style walking bass to flamenco and then a bee-bop sound.
“The tribute to Lenny Breau song is blues, blue grass, blues rock, and jazz blues. And then combining classical elements and putting them all together,” ” Zurakowsky says. “He was one of the world’s greatest guitar players, and nobody knows who he is. He’s Canadian”
The three tributes Zurakowsky plays Friday night will introduce Breau to people who never heard of him, and rekindle memories among fans of a certain age. Beau played the university-coffee-house circuit in the 1960s and 1970s around southern Ontario.
At 50, Zurakowsky seems to be starting a new phase of creativity, and he’s exscited about it.
“It’s great actually.”
While well-known as a classical guitarist and composer, Zurakowsky’s jazz roots go back more than 30 years, to when he studied music at the University of Toronto, 1987-1991. A legendary music proff there named Phil Nimmons, directed the school’s big band. He needed a guitarist and persuaded Zucharsky to join.
“He took me under his wing and taught me how to arrange and play jazz,” Zurakowsky says.
Nimmons, a virtuoso on the jazz clarinet, helped many classical musicians find their jazz groove.
“His original music is this cross between jazz and classical. So a big influence on my music was his music called The Atlantic Suite. That’s a big song and I guess a big inspiration for me. It is a huge suite for big bands: Is it classical? Is it jazz? Is it contemporary music? Like, there is no category. So I wrote a piece thinking about my days with Phil, it is called the Canadian Landscape Jazz Suite. So I have dedicated that to him.”
It was written for a quintet, but Zurakowsky played it recently in violin-guitar duet at St. Andrew’s Church and it worked very well.
Classical musicians are good at reading music, but not so good at figuring out the chords for jazz. So when Zurakowsky auditioned for Nimmons big band at the University of Toronto it did not go particularly well. But the legendary teacher saw something in Zurakowsky, and brought him on board anyway.
“I said: Okay I will do it, but just don’t ask me to solo or improvise. So the first chart he picks for the night is going really, really fast, I am barely keeping up trying to play the chords, and people are soloing and all of a sudden he says: ‘Play a guitart solo.’ A couple of notes came out, but I had no idea, it was just so fast. You have to think and hear so fast,” Zurakosky says.
“So when we finished the chart he asked me to stand up in front of the band and scream. Like, I am so shy and quiet, right. So I stand up and he says: ‘Scream!’. And I said: ‘I can’t, I can’t.’ So then I scream a little scream and he goes: ‘No, no, like this.’ And then he does this big, huge Tarzan scream, and says: ‘That’s what you have to feel when you improvise, and don’t worry about all that other stuff. You have to have this really go-for-it attitude.”
“As the months went on he would ask us to do that, stand up and scream,” Zurakowsky says. “That’s how I got into jazz.”