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Michael Brooker

This week’s featured artist is trombonist Michael Brooker, who participated in our Youth Big Band program in 2008-9.

While completing a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Performance from the University of Toronto, Michael worked with a variety of artists including Allen Vizzutti, Alastair Kay, Gordon Wolfe, Chase Sanborn, Terry Promane, Mike Murley, David Liebman, Jim Lewis, Donny McCaslin, and Kirk MacDonald. During this period, he also recorded with two ensembles that released albums in 2013: Reflections features saxophonist Mike Murley with the University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra; Rebirth features the University of Toronto 12tet led by Terry Promane, and includes one of Brooker’s compositions.

Since graduating, Michael has established himself on the Toronto music scene, performing jazz, classical pop, salsa, indie, and ska at venues including Roy Thomson Hall, Massey Hall, Rogers Centre, the Rex Hotel, the Jane Mallett Theatre, Old Mill Inn, Lula Lounge, Horseshoe Tavern, and the Opera House.

An accomplished composer and arranger, Michael has written for a variety of musical configurations in the jazz and classical idioms, including a ten-piece all-brass medley of the music of Michael Jackson for solo tuba. Brooker’s latest project is leading MB10, which is a ten-piece ensemble that is releasing its first recording this summer.

Michael took some time to discuss the influence that the Youth Big Band program has had on his music development as well as his more recent musical activities:

1) Describe your experience with the Youth Big Band program. What was your favourite aspect?

I entered the program in Jules Estrin's first year leading the ensemble (the second year of its existence) and as a result there was always a feeling among the band and Jules that we were building something new together. I had never participated in such a high quality jazz ensemble before then, with so many of its members going on to become my peers at UofT and have professional careers, and it basically gave me my first crash course in how to swing and basically focus on the level of a professional. So, while there were many important and beneficial aspects to the program, the professional development - or the sense that as a 17/18 year-old you were held absolutely accountable at all times to be prepared, on time and ready to execute at the standard of your peers and musical director - really gave me a head start in learning the expectations of the professional world.

2) What is your strongest memory of the Youth Big Band program? Are there any funny stories or incidents that come to mind?

My strongest memory has to have been the first time the band played an arrangement of Four Brothers, which was of course a feature for the saxophone section. The velocity of sound, swing and vocabulary produced by that young saxophone section, especially lead alto Matt Woroshyl and lead tenor Landen Vieira - who I had only just met and have had the honour of playing with for years now - on the FIRST READ was everything that I had aspired to be a part of. Despite having almost no clue about what they were playing and indeed HOW they were playing it at that time, I knew immediately that this ensemble, and more importantly this career path was the only one for me.

3) Would you recommend this experience to other young musicians?

Absolutely. The standard of excellence that is expected of the members of that program is unlike anything any young musician will experience prior to attending a university program. In my experience in this group I learned constantly of the value of hard work (in rehearsal and private practice), humility, concentration, and musical maturity in a way that, save perhaps for studying with Andrew Jones at Cawthra Park in Mississauga (though students of Andrew should definitely still check out the Youth Big Band), a young person will not find anywhere else.

4) How has this experience helped in your personal and professional development?

In this band I received my first lessons in the standard of excellence upheld and expected by my peers and mentors in the Toronto jazz scene. There was no better place, and indeed no better teacher, at that time in my life, to have taught me the humility, focus, and importance of listening that I have carried with me since.

5) This program is made possible by our generous donors and sponsors who strongly believe in the importance of arts education initiatives. If you had the opportunity to thank them in person, what would you say?

My grandfather was a jazz musician in this city, active from the 1930s to the 1980s, and both of my parents and many aunts and uncles are musical. Despite these influences however, I didn't really catch the "bug" or experience the undeniable urge to make music until I was about 16 or 17 years old and experienced this program and a few others. Coming from modest means, the ability to play and learn from people my age or younger and much better than I was (which was the way it needed to be for me to progress!) in the JAZZ.FM91 environment under Jules Estrin FOR FREE, is something that simply does not exist in most places around the world. With that said, the donors and sponsors gave me the chance to participate in something that I doubt I would have been able to afford on my own, and would never have been the same without.

6) Why is music education important?

Whether a student will go on to a career in music, keep it in their lives as a hobby, or take a complete left turn and do something else leaving their studies in music as a memory, music education is a window into creative personal expression. To teach a child, adolescent, adult, or senior how to speak without words, breath correctly for the first time, and vibrate the very foundations of the room they inhabit with music, is the most generous and irreplaceable gift anyone can bestow. When we make music, we leave our pain and even our identity behind, in favour of something much more real and all-encompassing. Music education offers anyone the ability to leave themselves behind and become a vibration, if only for a second, which is a necessary catharsis.  

7) Since participating in the program, what have you been doing?

From 2009-2013 I attended the Jazz Studies Program at the University of Toronto, earning a Bachelor of Music in Performance degree and in the process having the honour of studying and playing with some of my heroes, as well as people I will be making music with (I hope) for the rest of my life. In 2010 I attended a 5-week exchange to Central Europe, visiting the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Germany, which both earned me a credit and taught me how to do a lot of different things on my own. In a more general sense I have been writing and playing steadily since beginning university, recently having taken the longest time away (just under three weeks) from my instrument  that I have since I was 17 as a result of surgery on my wisdom teeth. This consistency has afforded me the chance to lead and/or participate in dozens of different projects as a player, composer, arranger or any combination of the three in a wide array of musical genres and instrumentations, from brass quintet to big band, orchestra to jazz trio, salsa to ska band, and everything in between. At the moment I am building a recording studio, learning the synthesizer, leading a ten piece ensemble called MB10 as trombonist/composer/arranger, writing/arranging for various ensembles, freelancing on trombone, and teaching. I have also just released my first EP with MB10 called Unbound, which is available for purchase on iTunes and Bandcamp.

8) What music are you listening to at the moment that you find particularly inspiring?

I'm really blown away by the music of John Hollenbeck, particularly his albums Eternal Interlude and recently released Songs I Like A Lot (2013). He like many others I've been checking out lately from different musical disciplines like the band KNOWER, John Coltrane, Vijay Iyer, Jonny Greenwood and so many more all seem to embody the spirit of "learned individuality" for lack of a better term. By that I mean I'm really inspired by artists who have thoroughly immersed themselves in music that has come before them and, instead of copying, competing with, or contravening it, have learned to assimilate and amalgamate these influences, along with their own personal experiences, into something that is unique. 

9) What are your plans for the future?

In addition to various projects that I'm either leading or participating in on a freelance basis, I'm currently planning and booking the next season of concerts for my band MB10, which will culminate in our first full length studio recording next June followed by a national tour in the Autumn of 2015. Following that I have a few more academic aspirations as well as further recording, touring, freelancing, and teaching.

10) How can people learn more about you and your activities?

While I am still building my website, I have a few places that I regularly update with different things: (Artist Page) (my channel for recordings and live videos)

My latest EP, Unbound, is now available for purchase and download on iTunes and Bandcamp!

11) Is there anything else that you want to add?

Please support as much live music and art as possible!

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