With the culmination of nearly two years preparation at hand, there was a hint of laughter in Miles Osland's voice. You could call it an expression of practical enthusiasm, a chuckle that celebrates not only the goal but the last round of grunt work required to realize the quest.
"I've just sent the band a to-do list," he said. "It was like, 'OK, you've had three weeks off. It's time to start thinking about this.'"
'This' involves the most elaborate concert adventure attempted by the University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble, of which Osland has long been director. On Sunday, it will perform a final local performance, a Bon Voyage concert, before heading overseas for a tour that will include concerts at two of the world's most prestigious jazz gatherings: the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
"It's always been one of my biggest goals to get invited," Osland said. "But that's only one part of the process. The other is getting everything funded to actually get over there and do it. As it turns out, this will be the most extensive and expensive project that any major ensemble at the University of Kentucky has ever undertaken."
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The "extensive" part of the project includes a 15-day trip that involves a performance at the Beaujolais Festival in Lyon, France, and stops in Paris and in Grindelwald and Geneva, Switzerland. But it's the Montreux and North Sea festivals that are the primary focus of the journey.
The Montreux event is perhaps the most prominent jazz-related festival in the world, even though its lineup is rich with pop and rock celebrities. This year, the UK Jazz Ensemble is on a performance roster that includes Santana, B.B. King, Sting, Arcade Fire, Esperanza Spalding, Liza Minnelli and others.
"For a lot of students at first, the feeling was like, 'Oh, yeah, we're going to Europe," said Dieter Rice, a Seattle native and a UK doctoral student who leads the Jazz Ensemble's saxophone section. "And as things got closer, it started dawning on people: you know, 'This is actually going to happen. We're actually going to do this.'"
The North Sea Festival ups the ante for multiple reasons. Its lineup is similarly star-studded (Prince, Paul Simon and Herbie Hancock are among the performers). But here, the UK Jazz Ensemble can boast of being the only North American collegiate jazz group on the bill.
"I think there are only three slots, one each day of the festival, dedicated towards a university group," Osland said. "And we've got one of them. There are two European conservatory-type groups that are also performing."
There will be another bonus at the North Sea Festival. During its set, the Jazz Ensemble will be joined by Grammy-winning bandleader and saxophonist Joe Lovano.
"I remember getting this email from Miles saying we're going to be performing this tune called Side Effects May Include Swinging with Joe Lovano," Rice said. "We actually played that tune with its composer, Denis DiBlasio, earlier in the year. I played a solo, then he played a solo. Now I'm wondering if I play a solo first at North Sea, Joe Lovano might go, 'Here's a lesson for you, son.' It's very exciting."
Curiously, this is not the first time that Osland has received an invitation for one of his collegiate bands to perform overseas. An offer from the Montreux festival came his way when he became an instructor at UK in 1989. But he declined the opportunity for several reasons, not the least of which was raising enough money to finance such a trip.
"Getting an invitation to play Montreux is always a director's dream," Osland said. "It's a goal, definitely. But at the time, I was an untenured faculty member that didn't have a grasp on how over my head I would be trying to fund-raise for a trip like this."
The price for the tour, which involves 30 people, including 20 students and five faculty members: about $110,000. More than two decades removed from his initial invitation, Osland is well versed in the sort of planning that a tour of this magnitude requires. So he gave himself a lot of time to seek a lot of money. Through various fund-raising efforts, numerous benefit concerts and the united support of UK factions, including the School of Music and College of Fine Arts and outgoing UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., the trip is, according to Osland, "pretty much paid for."
"There have been many, many bands here over the years that would have been able to get an invitation for these festivals. The quality has been that good.
"But I saw this current band taking shape about two years ago. It was pretty cooking even then, with a lot of mature players and a lot of great young players. I also could see that I wasn't going to be losing players through the following school year. So I thought, 'This was the time. This was the time to make the push because the band was going to be at perfection for something we really wanted to showcase globally. And I thought I had enough backing from the administration and elsewhere to make it happen financially."
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question about all the musical globetrotting is the matter of rehearsal. The Jazz Ensemble's tour comes smack in the middle of a season when the university as a whole is not in session. Thus the group's members have been dispersed.
To offset that, the musicians stayed on campus an extra week in May for a rigorous set of eight-hour rehearsals. They reconvened earlier this week for a final round of rehearsing that will include, of all things, a recording session.
"It's great to do a recording session after you've been out on the road with the music for a while," Osland said. "Logistically, of course, that didn't work out for us. But what's nice is that at a recording session, you get really microscopic. We will really set out to fine-tune things at the recording session and then put them in a real live situation at the Bon Voyage concert on Sunday.
"I think it's a great way to sharpen up for the trip," said Rice, the sax player. "I mean, playing at these festivals is awesome. It's like we're going to the World Series."