The Canadian trombonist, pianist and composer/bandleader Hugh Fraser has died at the age of just 61. He had been grappling with cancer over three years.
Tributes that have been written in the days since he passed away have drawn attention to his great enthusiasm and positivity. Christine Jensen, also originally from British Columbia, has described him as a “comet of energy.” And saxophonist Steve Kaldestad has written: “When Hugh played trombone or piano, he would give it 200% and just dive right into the music with all the mental and physical energy in the universe. He passed on his ideas about musical theory (and the Fibonacci sequence!) with just as much passion. Think of how many Canadians appreciate the great Kenny Wheeler that might not have if it hadn’t been for Hugh.”
He was an important musician in Canadian jazz, but also had significant involvement with the scenes in New York, London and Cuba where his fine musicianship, versatility and affable good nature have left their mark.
The son of a percussionist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, he grew up in the city. He had a strong association with the Banff Centre of Fine Arts in Alberta where his successive roles ran the gamut from student to faculty member and ultimately head of the jazz program. In the early 2000s he also had teaching posts at the University of Victoria and the Victoria Conservatory of Music. As bandleader, the Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation that he formed in 1980 kept going for more than four decades. His quintet was another long-term feature, and its albums won Juno Awards in 1989 and 1998. A feature of his quintets was that not just Fraser himself but also another player would switch from blowing instrument to piano. As a composer he had over 100 of his original works recorded.
Frank Griffith remembers him from his New York time: “I first got to know him in New York in the mid 1980s. He had received a substantial study grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and formed ensembles which I had the good fortune to play in. During this time he also played with and/or wrote for Maynard Ferguson and Clifford Jordan’s big bands and Slide Hampton’s World of Trombones.”
The positive mark he has left from his visits to the UK was also substantial. He worked closely with composer Graham Collier during in the early years of the jazz degree course at the Royal Academy of Music which started in 1991, and taught composition there for over a decade. He also worked a lot with his good friend, fellow Canadian, Kenny Wheeler, and played on Kenny’s epic 1990 double CD for ECM “Music For Large And Small Ensembles” on ECM. He also conducted many concerts that Kenny did at the South Bank Centre.
His involvement with Cuba started when Hugh Fraser’s quintet was playing their first week at Ronnie Scott’s in the late 1980’s opposite Irakere with Chucho Valdez. Fraser told an interviewer in 2001 (Link): “ We developed a lifelong bond. I was trying to study with him and he wouldn’t accept any money so we just hung out and played and stuff. And I got him to come and teach up in Banff, which was his first teaching experience in North America, which was a bit of a landmark at that point. Now he’s all over the place. From there he invited me down and I did a recording and guested with his band, Irakere, and a couple other bands.”
Hugh Fraser was an influential and inspiring contributor to jazz. As Slide Hampton said in the liner note for the 1997 quintet album In The Mean Time, which went on to win Fraser’s second Juno award: “Anything that he’s involved in has to be good.” RIP.
Hugh Alexander Fraser. Born: 26 October 1958, Victoria, Canada. Died: 17 June 2020, Vancouver.
Hugh Fraser. Publicity photo