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Theme & Variations on Stan Rogers' "Northwest Passage"

by Suresh Singaratnam



A little over 10 years ago, I was pretty down about leaving NYC to move back home to Canada. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved being Canadian, but after studying music and living in Manhattan for years, I’d grown to think of it as home too and I’d made a lot of great friends down there. I still miss NYC a lot today. But back to feeling pretty down 10 years ago ...

I decided I would treat myself to a solo road trip to Banff National Park and back (I live near Toronto, ON) to cheer myself up. I bought a new camera and lens, booked the car rental for a couple weeks, and booked a hotel for a couple nights in Banff. I told one of my best friends what I was planning and he recommended that I drive up to Jasper, Alberta after I arrived in Banff. (more on that later).

I started my trip on May 5, 2011. Did you know it takes more than a day to get out of Ontario if you’re driving northwest? I didn’t, until that trip.

Did you know about the secret treasure of storybook landscapes in Northern Ontario? I didn’t, until that trip.

Did you know about the “big sky” in the prairies? I didn’t, until that trip.

I arrived in Banff on May 8th and enjoyed the views of the mountains my first evening there, but then on the morning of May 9th, I followed my friend’s advice and headed north for Jasper. At first I was very disappointed, because it was cloudy, and the views of the mountains were obscured. But then the sky cleared.

But then the sky cleared. 😳😳😳

That was one of the best days of my life. Just driving through the mountains, stopping briefly to take in some epic views, driving through the Columbia Ice Fields, having a burger and poutine in Jasper, and the driving back to Banff to see a lot those epic views again as the sun set. I went from wearing a T-shirt to a winter coat with layers, back to a t-shirt again within a few hours.

I wish I had the money to stay in Banff for another month, but the next day, I started my drive back home.

I also found a 1080p camcorder on sale just before that road trip (remember when 1080p was a big deal? 🤣🤦🏾‍♂️). I setup that camcorder on a tripod in the front passenger seat every morning before I started driving, so I could easily start and stop filming without taking my eyes off the road. By the time I was back home in Ontario, I had a lot of photos and video from my trip.

It took me years to fully absorb and process that experience in a meaningful way, but a year later I started writing arrangements of Canadian folk songs for a new album that I wanted to record. In my search for Canadian folk songs, I heard the late Stan Rogers’ classic “Northwest Passage”. As I read the lyrics, I realised he was basically describing the cross-country drive I’d experienced myself.

Adapting a standard verse+chorus song with lyrics for trumpet and piano is a challenge, because with no lyrics just playing the melody will sound too repetitive. I decided to write a theme & variations based on Stan Rogers’ original melody. Jean Baptiste Arban’s Variations of “The Carnival of Venice” was the first solo piece I performed widely, so I thought it would be fitting for me to write theme & variations for young Canadian trumpet players to grow up hearing and playing.

After I finished the arrangement and needed to find a Canadian pianist to play the piano part, I remembered the answer was back in my own personal musical history.

Speaking of J.B. Arban’s Carnival of Venice, in high school, my first year at National Music Camp was through a scholarship from the Kiwanis Music Festival. That year, I’d placed second in one of the solo competitions because my accompanist couldn’t play her part for Carnival. (My family didn’t have the money to hire an professional pianist, so a friend from high school generously offered to help out, but the piano reduction based on the Eastman Wind Ensemble arrangement from Wynton Marsalis’ classic recording was a little too much for her to handle). I think the adjudicator recommended the NMC scholarship because he knew I needed to meet more musicians my age.

I met Stu Harrison that summer when I wanted to play Carnival for one of the concerts at NMC. I needed an accompanist and when I asked one of the faculty members if he could help out, he kindly recommended Stu. Now, I didn’t even have the piano part with me, but of course this is Stu Harrison, so he just literally improvised one on the spot. He was the first musician I met who was my age, who was as serious about music as I was. A lot of my first gigs as a young performer were with Stu.

Fast forward Back to late 2015, when I called Stu up for the first time in a while after we'd lost touch after my move to NYC for school. I asked him if I could hire him for a read-through rehearsal for those folk songs I’d arranged. Stu’s probably sick of me telling this story, but that rehearsal changed my life.

He basically sight-read everything perfectly. After years of missing my musician friends in NYC and being frustrated musically because I wasn’t there anymore, I’d rediscovered a pianist friend who could play anything I wrote. The day after that rehearsal was when waking up at 5am everyday to practice became my life again (even on weekends). In the few years since that rehearsal with Stu, I’ve written more music than I had written in all my years before that.

Thanks to Fogarty Cove & Cole Harbour Music, and Linus Entertainment for their generous license for this recording, thanks for Rob Brown at Mummy Dust Music for his help with processing that license so quickly, and extra thanks to the always awesome Marc Koecher of MKSoundworks for taking a trumpet recording from my room and Stu’s MIDI keyboard performance and making it all sound like we rented a nice performance space to record. Of course, thanks to Stu Harrison for being Stu Harrison and bringing back that trumpet kid from Scarborough who dreamed big and woke up before sunrise every morning to practice.

I hope you enjoy this recording of Stu and me playing this new take on Stan Rogers’ 1981 masterpiece. You can also watch the music video (featuring a lot of footage from my 2010 roadtrip) on YouTube.


released May 7, 2021
Suresh Singaratnam - trumpet
Stu Harrison - piano

Original music & lyrics by Stan Rogers
Copyright 1981 © Fogarty's Cove and Cole Harbour Music

Arranged by Suresh Singaratnam (ASCAP)
Copyright 2021 ℗ Suresong Music Inc.

All rights Reserved


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Suresh Singaratnam

Suresh Singaratnam is a trumpeter of uncommon breadth - unique not only for the small crowd he inhabits as a virtuoso of both classical and jazz styles but also for the continuity and clarity of his voice across both idioms. When he began to study the trumpet at age nine, it never occurred to him that he might have to choose between the two.

- Nathaniel Smith
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