"Just go build the band": how the Sister Jazz Orchestra started

An interview with Christian Morrison of Sister Jazz Orchestra

"Just go build the band": how the Sister Jazz Orchestra started
Sister Jazz Orchestra*, with Christian Morrison seated third from left (no instrument in-hand).

I interviewed Christian Morrison, the founder of Sister Jazz Orchestra (SJO), about the big band's performance on Friday, March 11 at the BlueShore. What I most want to highlight to you, just ahead of SJO's gig, is the story that Christian told me about how it all started.

But I did an embarrassing thing: I introduced myself to her, when we had met before! Of course, she remembered all the goods:

"I think you came and subbed in my Mighty Fraser Big Band once! I remember you coming in, you had no car, you had your bass on the bus or whatever... you were awesome."

That happened circa 2013, in my wild teenage years. And for her part, Christian doesn't direct that big band anymore; instead she leads the Sister Jazz Orchestra through shows like this one, coming up on Friday.

What SJO will play at the BlueShore in North Van

Christian talked about some of the international composers on the setlist for Friday: Mary Lou Williams and Junko Moriya.

And some other featured composers with Canadian connections are Jill Townsend, Christine Jensen, and Chelsea McBride.

Selections from Chelsea McBride

From Chelsea's catalogue, SJO will play "In Dreams" from The Twilight Fall, and "Porcelain" from the latest album by Chelsea McBride's Socialist Night School, Aftermath.

Christian appreciates Chelsea:

"I have had some conversations with her, but I became aware of her a couple years back, and I started buying her albums. Love what she does! She orchestrates beautifully, and she's so inventive, creative, and fresh. And she has a lot to say."

SJO will perform with NiteCap. as the opener. Some SJO members are also singers in that school vocal jazz ensemble, like Casey Thomas-Burns, who will play bass trombone with the big band.

Matt Shipley will sing in NiteCap and also sing the lead vocal on Chelsea's song "In Dreams". Here's how he sees himself fitting in:

"I like to think of myself as the smiley one, like the one who's always trying to raise morale and keep us all happy, but you'll have to ask my bandmates if I'm at all successful!"

I'll be asking...

A tune from the Jill Townsend Big Band

SJO will play "Waltz of the Jellyfish" by Jill Townsend, from her big band album Tales from the Sea – which was recorded 20 years ago at Cap.

I don't know where you can buy that album, and you can't find it on streaming, but you can listen to "Waltz of the Jellyfish" on this page from Jill's website.

Madeleine Elkins, who plays guitar in SJO, told me that this tune and Chelsea's music are her favourites right now:

"It's kind of a guitar feature. 'In Dreams' is really nice too: there's a beautiful story behind it and the guitar part – the way it's arranged – is well done."

The collaboration of Christian Morrison and Jessica Heaven

Christian's main collaborator in leading SJO is Jessica Heaven, who is a vocalist and co-founder of the Women in Jazz Association of BC.

Here's Christian on what this collaboration with Jess has accomplished so far, going back to the founding of SJO:

"I had been thinking about this idea, and I'd spoken to some people about it. But it was still [just] in my head.

I saw a poster for the Women in Jazz Association, putting on an event; and I said, 'What's that? Here's someone who's thinking what I'm thinking. Who's that organizer? I need to meet her!'

I went to the event just to meet her, and I said, "I've been thinking about starting an all-female big band'.

She said, 'Oh, I've been thinking about something like that too! Okay, we have to meet. Next week, we're going to get together. We're gonna make this happen.' So we did!

We met the next week, and she said this wonderful thing. I was saying, 'Well, this is what I'm thinking, but it's going to take a lot of money; I'm not sure how that's going to work,' and all the reasons you can't do something.

She said, 'Tell you what: I've done some grant writing, so why don't you use assume that I'm going to get the money? Just go build the band.'

So I went and built the band! She lit a fire under me. She took away the reasons why not to do it.

That kind of energy is crucial when you want to start something that matters.

Sister Jazz Orchestra's history

Previously, the SJO recorded a live set at the Fort Langley Jazz Festival for COJazz, the Canadian Online Jazz Festival.

COJazz was an initiative in 2020 to keep the core festival programming going across the country, through that year.

You can watch the set below, but first, here's what they played:

Set list from COJazz (2020)

  1. "Big Swing Face" (Buddy Rich), a medium blues
  2. "Happy Hoofer" (Toshiko Akiyoshi), a Basie / Sammy Nestico vibe
  3. "My Lament" (Maria Schneider), an evocative ballad
  4. "That's My Style" (Peggy Lee), a vocal feature for Bonnie Northgraves

We'll see if they bring anything back on Friday, a year-and-a-half later. You can watch that COJazz set in the first 25 minutes of this double-header presentation:

Before COJazz, SJO made its debut at the West Coast Big Band Festival of 2019, which happened at the Croatian Cultural Centre. There, according to Christian, they played a headlining set to around 500 people.

*Lineup changes for the upcoming show, vs. the photo in this article: Shannon Thue on piano instead of Sharon Minemoto (standing fourth from left); Casey Thomas-Burns subbing for Ellen Marple (standing second from right) on bass trombone.