From writing an “improv musical” to penning Bach-inspired pop tunes for a show at the Citadel Theatre, Morgan McKee is proving it’s possible to be a busy jazz musician in central Alberta.
“My work is rewarding and I get to play the piano every single day, so I’m living the dream,” said the 48-year-old Red Deer pianist, musical arranger, composer and recording engineer.
McKee has been spreading his multiple talents throughout the province and has so much work lined up, his calendar is full until the end of the summer.
His day job is head of district sales, as well as musician, arranger and recording engineer at Themes and Variations Musicplay — a Red Deer company run by Denise Gagne that sells recorded music and other teaching supplies to schools across North America and 26 other countries.
But when McKee isn’t putting together video and audio recordings for schools, he will be composing and arranging for an upcoming production of Pride and Prejudice for Mieko Ouchi. It opens March 11 at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton.
Ouchi, a ground-breaking director who previously worked with Theatre Studies at Red Deer College, wants to bring a modern sensibility to the Jane Austen classic. “She’s sending me these 2021-22 pop songs and asking me to make them sound a little Bach,” said McKee, with a chuckle.
In April, he will be co-writing — or rather co-inventing — along with Ash Mercia, possibly the world’s first improvisational musical for Bull Skit Comedy.
So what is an improv musical? McKee expects the musicians and improvisers will take cues from each other. “They might be doing a scene where they burst into song,” he suggests — or the musicians might slow down or speed up the tempo, based on whatever’s happening on stage.
Alongside this work for Bull Skit, McKee plays a behind-the-scenes role as music director and vocal coach with Lindsay Thurber and Notre Dame High Schools on their musicals Head Over Heels and Matilda, which open in February and March.
McKee said he loves working with young people and contributing towards their education. After 14 years of these high schools gigs, he added, “some of the students will still contact me and share what’s going on with their lives.”
He also regularly performs with professional musicians in various jazz trios. And now and again, McKee will also work with the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra. Most recently, he pulled off a memorable onstage demonstration of how the musical forms ragtime evolved into blues, jazz and Dixieland during the January concert at the Red Deer Polytechnic Arts Centre.
This summer, he plans to teach teenage musicians from across Western Canada as co-director of a jazz workshop a MusiCamp Alberta at Red Deer Polytechnic.
McKee also expects to help out friends and fellow jazz musicians Eric Allison and Cheryl Fisher with the Jazz at the Lake festival in Sylvan Lake since he joined the board of directors.
As if that wasn’t enough career juggling, McKee, who has composed and arranged a video series for the Fairmont Hotel chain, regularly fulfills commissions from Banff-Canmore artists Bridget Ryan and Jason Carter.
The graduate of the Berkeley School of Music in Boston, credits his partner, local choreographer Elisa Nixon, for supporting him through all of his endeavours. “I think I have a balanced life, but Elisa might not think so!”
His son, Rainier McKee, 13 has been working his way into the music business as a drummer for the Red Deer Royals and the Lindsay Thurber band.
And McKee’s sister, Mandy McKee, is an accomplished singer who recently collaborated with the RDSO.
Morgan admitted neither he, nor his parents, know where all of this family talent springs from. But he knows the key to making a successful living as a musician in central Alberta is to immerse yourself in the region. Besides creating your own opportunities, “you have to become part of the community and get to know people,” he added.
“You definitely can’t sit back and wait for stuff to happen — I know there isn’t a lot of sitting around for me!”
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