Move into jazz a natural choice

Saxophonist Mark DeJong plays what he likes to call “jazz with a groove.” Along with his New Jersey-based band The Outer Bridge Ensemble, DeJong incorporates funk, R&B, pop and even world music into the instrumental jazz tunes he creates.

Saxophonist Mark DeJong in concert Thursday at The Matchbox.

Saxophonist Mark DeJong plays what he likes to call “jazz with a groove.”

Along with his New Jersey-based band The Outer Bridge Ensemble, DeJong incorporates funk, R&B, pop and even world music into the instrumental jazz tunes he creates.

Perhaps because of these diverse influences, “all kinds of people seem to be able to relate to the music we do — everyone from little kids, to people who are steeped in traditional jazz,” said DeJong. who performs with his ensemble at The Matchbox on Thursday.

His latest album, The Unknown, has certainly gone over well, winning critical praise from France to Italy and Australia. It also earned a 2009 Western Canadian Music Award nomination and lingered at the top of the campus jazz charts for 13 weeks.

“I was really knocked out by the response,” said DeJong, who based the album’s title on his own life experience of quitting the familiar and immersing himself in the unknown.

In 1998, the 41-year-old Calgary native gave up his steady teaching job at Mount Royal College to move to Vancouver and study jazz with renowned “sax guru” Stan Karp.

DeJong had previously dabbled in all sorts of music (he was a member of the popular Alberta quartet The Swinging Bovines), but he said he finally knew what he wanted to do. By focusing on original jazz, “I felt like I was following some kind of grand design.”

After spending three fruitful years in Vancouver, DeJong once again entered a new phase of his career by relocating to New Jersey in 2001 to attend Rutgers University.

DeJong said he moved there to study with Canadian native Ralph Bowen — whom he considers “one of the greatest sax players and teachers in the world.”

While in New Jersey, DeJong took full advantage of the university’s choice location to catch world-class jazz performances in New York City. He also helped found The Outer Bridge Ensemble, which is made up of talented musicians he met at school: keyboardist Steve Hudson, bassist Mike Noordzy, and percussionists Jerome Jennings and David Freeman.

DeJong said he’s had to make a concerted effort to stick with his U.S.-based band after moving back to Canada in 2004.

While the musician now lives with his wife, a classical trumpet player, and young son in Saskatoon, where DeJong teaches at the University of Saskatchewan, he loves showing his American bandmates different slices of Canada by bringing them up here on tours.

“I keep extolling the virtues of our public health system,” DeJong said with a laugh. “I know they always appreciate coming up here.”

While Canada might have its share of faults, DeJong said it amazes his New Jersey bandmates that this country offers Canada Council grants to help musicians tour. “They shake their heads and are in awe that that kind of funding is available.”

For the Red Deer concert, the ensemble will be joined by guest bassist Simon Fisk of Calgary and the Lindsay Thurber Composite High School Senior Jazz Band. DeJong conducted a workshop with the band last spring and has also tutored students during summer programs at Red Deer College.

Mark DeJong and the Outer Bridge Ensemble perform at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday at The Matchbox in Red Deer. Tickets are $25 ($20 students and seniors) from Ticketmaster.

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