Thursday, November 06, 2008

Make this moment sweet again

Last week I had the great honour and privilege of working with vocalist, improviser and teacher Rhiannon. Her group of students, called the Vocal River, were in town for their third and final retreat of the year, giving various performances around the city. On Tuesday, at the Yellow Door, I was more of an observer, watching the various improvisational scenarios Rhiannon set out for her students. Rhiannon and I did a duet, with myself on melodica.

Friday's performance, more of an open rehearsal session at Studio 303, was thrilling. Four instrumentalists - myself (piano, melodica, accordion, percussion), Michael Reinhart (guitar, accordion, percussion), Vovô (percussion) and Sarah Wendt (French horn) - joined the choir, and Sarah, Katie Ewald and Lin Snelling danced on a couple of pieces. This concert was a fantastic learning experience on so many levels. Rhiannon and her students embody a truly "anything-goes" philosophy of improvisation - from the full choir building McFerrin-esque circle songs, to soloists varying from spoken word to various vocal traditions from around the world to incorporating standards on top of improvised backgrounds. As Dave Douglas said, "'Free' means having the freedom to make any musical decision in real time."

Contexts were shattered among the instrumentalists as well: I've only ever played Michael's songs with him, with minimal improvising, and when we do work together I play his accordion. Friday marked the first time we had improvised together, and the first time he had ever really heard me play piano. Not only did I have the opportunity to use different musical vocabularies - from dissonant tone clusters to two-fisted gospel piano to re-interpreting standards - I got to work on a variety of different instruments. It was really a mental and aural workout. I only know Vovô from Estação da Luz, his batucada here in Montreal. As an improviser he is truly responsive, and of course, any time we locked onto a groove it was stunningly tight.

Experience in free improvising lends a certain openness to all the music I play, whether it's through-composed, semi-composed, or completely free. All the singers in the choir were fantastic, and I look forward to hearing their own music. Here's three of them: Alison Wedding; Katia Leonardo; and Patti Shaffner.

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