Sunday, April 15, 2007

Manhattan on the Rideau - 04/11/2007

So, as Mwanji mentioned in an earlier comment, this past Wednesday Indigone Trio went down to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to participate in a videoconference master class with Kenny Barron. NAC and Manhattan School of Music have this broadband linkup so that people performing in Ottawa can be coached by MSM professors. I had participated in one of these master classes a year ago, when the McGill Jazz Orchestra went down and played student compositions for Michael Abene. I attended as a composer, not playing in the band, so it was a nice change to be playing on the Fourth Stage of NAC.

The attendance in Ottawa was astounding. For the Abene master class there were only a smattering of people; this time it was standing room only, even with additional chairs. There were three other pianists performing: Steve Boudreau, from Ottawa; Hoyuen Lee from Humber College; and Victor Cheng from U of T. Both the Toronto pianists study with Dave Restivo, one of my favourite piano players from my old stomping grounds.

My participation in this whole thing was very last minute, as my fellow McGillian Chad Linsley was supposed to attend but couldn't, due to a conflict; McGill professor Joe Sullivan ran into me before a rehearsal and asked me to do it. I was under the impression that Alex and Phil were not only going to play for me, but serve as a house rhythm section. I didn't realize that the clinic was geared towards solo piano, so I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was all rather hastily organized between me, Joe, and Pace Sturdevant at NAC, whose assistance and patience were invaluable.

Barron started the master class by briefly talking and playing through his history, starting with a short boogie/blues excerpt, then a piece played in the style of Tommy Flanagan, Monk's "Light Blue" and a Monkish rendition of "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." I was quite impressed with the quality of the transmission from Manhattan to NAC; it sounded like sitting in the first few rows of a concert hall, if the piano were miked. There were a couple of glitches in the feed, but they were sorted out in short order.

Steve Boudreau then played "How Deep is the Ocean," in a manner reminiscent of Chick Corea's solo excursions, extending and massaging the form. He also played an original impressionistic ballad. Turns out we both studied with Jeff Johnston, which isn't surprising given our similar tastes and biases. Indigone played "Day Dream" as per Mr. Barron's request, and then we played "Not You Again," the Scofield line on "There Will Never Be Another You." Later in the Q&A, Barron revealed that Scofield is one of his preferred guitarists, so we lucked out with that selection - the other uptempo choices we had on our list were "Law Years" and "Enumeration" (my original composition).

Hoyuen Lee played a very minimalist rendition of "It Never Entered My Mind," starting with a series of As in different octaves. It would have fit in well with David Byrne's recent "one-note" concert at Zankel Hall. He followed it up with "All The Things You Are," exploding and exploring the form. His citation of Radiohead as an influence wasn't surprising, but his mention of hip-hop was, as I can't really decipher what about hip-hop had filtered into his playing. Of course, solo piano + Radiohead immediately conjures the spirit of Mehldau, which I know is something I try to escape. No disrespect to Mehldau or Lee, but it seems like Mehldau is the omnipresent comparison for pianists these days, and one that I've gotten a fair bit myself. Victor Cheng closed out the master class with impressive takes on "Tones for Joan's Bones" and "Hot House," swinging hard in appropriate ways. Of all the pianists, he was my favourite.

Barron is a fantastic musician, but he seems to be part of a camp of players who rarely, if ever, consciously tackle aspects of their playing and, as such, do not (I'm hesitant to say can not) address issues in specificity. The comments he had for me were diametrically opposed to what I've been told in the past, so maybe I've fixed my previous problems too much. On "Day Dream," I left a lot of space and played the melody sparingly, as Jeff always said I took up too much room. Barron felt I left too much space. He advised playing with the soft pedal, which to me can often be a crutch. The soft pedal is a specific sound, and isn't the same as a soft or light touch. On "Not You Again," he said the trio didn't have enough forward momentum, a far cry from our days when guitarist Mike Gauthier called us an "energy band" and every tune took off, whether it needed to or not. He didn't really have much to say about Lee's modernist excursions, and the most specific thing he said to Victor Cheng was that his left hand was getting in his right hand's way (which was true at times), but didn't really give much detail in how to go about fixing it.

During the Q&A, after a ridiculously oddball question (some archaic piece of trivia that had nothing to do with the previous hour and a half) and some fluff questions ("When can we see Sphere again?"; "Who's your favourite guitar player?") good questions about technique and practicing came up. Barron admitted he plays a lot and doesn't practice much, and doesn't have a warm-up routine. He also said he doesn't work with his students on technique because he doesn't really have to - all his students have their technique in order. Alex asked him if he had any ensemble rehearsal tips, which he didn't aside from "play together more." Someone asked about balancing one's solo playing and one's trio or group playing, and again Barron admitted that he never really consciously worked on solo playing, he just had a bunch of solo gigs and figured it out on the bandstand. Combined with the physical disconnect of the videoconferencing, the master class felt almost impersonal. I don't mean to denigrate Barron's musicianship, but there's only so much one can get out of generalities. I'd almost rather deal with someone like Wayne Shorter, whose statements often live in their own little world - at the very least it gets the mental gears turning.

After the session had ended, I had the pleasure to meet James Hale, of DownBeat and Coda fame. He interviewed me briefly for a piece he's writing about this whole NAC/MSM interface, I'm not sure for which publication.

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