Monday, June 29, 2009

Jazz Matters 2009: Modern Jazz Piano

When James Hale invited me to be part of a Modern Jazz Piano panel alongside Ashley Kahn, Mark Miller, Alan Stanbridge, Jesse Stewart and Jason Moran, I immediately said yes. Honoured to be in such esteemed company (and honestly a little nervous), the panel took place at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage this afternoon. It was a little bizarre to be talking and not playing there, after having done two master classes (Michael Abene and Kenny Barron).

A fair amount of ground got covered in the mere hour we had, and through Mark Miller's comments on Oscar Peterson we landed on the topic of "regional mentorship," or players that are highly influential or inspirational on a localized level, but not on a national or international scale. Other topics included unsung/"underpromoted" heroes of the keyboard, the amount of music for pianists (and musicians in general) to absorb, and the role of electronics and synthesizers in the modern piano world.

Coinciding with the blogosphere's discussion of the knowledge of the tradition among young players, Moran said that some of his students at the Manhattan School aren't as aware of Thelonious Monk as they should be, let alone Herbie Nichols or Andrew Hill (or James P. Johnson). The statement "I have it on my iPod" has come to stand in for actually checking the music out. While I'm far from an encylopaedic fount of knowledge (I certainly haven't checked out enough Nichols or James P.), I can't fathom a jazz pianist not checking Monk. I was fortunate to discover Monk early on, and I'm still digging through the treasure trove there. Then again, I hadn't even heard Paul Bley's Footloose, Jarrett's American quartet, Herbie Nichols, or a good chunk of AACM-related music until well into my university career.

Miller's distinction between "influence" and "inspiration" is intriguing, and it's one that I've come across in my own development many times. As I said on the panel, Dave Brubeck and Oscar Peterson were my inspirations to pursue jazz piano. Does my music today necessarily reflect that? No. I haven't even listened to Time Out in years; I delved back into OP's music after his death but haven't revisited it since. I have immense admiration for what Vijay Iyer is doing too, but does it feed into my musical process? Somewhat, but not really.

I can't emphasize how important I feel that checking out the traditions - "common-practice" jazz, the "avant-garde," pre-bop, post-bop - are. My favourite musicians are equally at home playing composed music and freely improvising, and their experience in each informs the other. But the truly important thing is to investigate the music that resonates on a personal level - be it Jelly Roll Morton or J Dilla, Julius Hemphill or Djavan.

One of the audience members asked whether the listed pantheon of giants was American-centric. Probably. If it had been a European panel I'm sure Esbjorn Svensson would have been mentioned somewhere, as well as Bobo Stenson, John Taylor, and many others. But I think the approach of European musicians, at least those that I've met, is similar to my own - you investigate a wide variety of music and then cherry-pick elements out of it.

Kudos to James for running a tight ship, and to Ashley, Jesse, Jason, Mark and Alan for sharing their wisdom.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


As usual, Darcy beat me to the punch with his remembrance.

I had Thriller, Bad and Dangerous on cassettes when I was a kid. I don't really remember why I bought them - I think they were just cool albums to have in the late 80s and early 90s, before MJ became dogged by child molestation allegations, melting faces, financial ruin and all-around craziness. It was only in my final year of high school, when a bass player I knew bought all the reissued CDs and played them in his car, that I grasped the depth of what was going on in the production of those albums. YouTube is a treasure trove of live and rehearsal footage, a testament to his skills as a bandleader. As an interpreter, Darcy's got a great version posted, and he obviously makes Rod Temperton's songs his own on Off the Wall.

If you want to talk about rhythmic integrity, MJ is a classic case. Many have written and talkedf about his immense groove and pocket, beatboxing and singing with precision. It's a real shame that James Brown is gone, and his heir (at least in the footwork department) is gone now too. I wonder if there's someone who can galvanize pop culture the way MJ did, even in his lesser moments.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Deux solitudes

I tend not to get political on this blog, but sometimes stories come along that intersect with my life as a musician in Montreal. Big news here this week, on the eve of St-Jean, was the brouhaha over two anglophone acts performing at a St-Jean party.

For non-Québécois readers: St-Jean-Baptiste day, also known as the Fête nationale du Québec, is a summer statutory holiday taken to celebrate Quebec and its culture, originally to unite all the settlers in Lower Canada. More recently, with the separatist/souverainiste/indépendantiste movement in Quebec over the last 30-something years, it's become at times a fiercely nationalistic celebration.

The party in question, L'Autre St-Jean, was booked by a management company called C4. Two of the acts on the roster were Lake Of Stew and Bloodshot Bill - anglophone acts who call Quebec home. One of the co-sponsors of the party, the Association culturel Louis-Hébert, demanded that C4 drop them from the bill, stating that the St-Jean party should be a French-only affair. C4 refused, many Québecois (anglophone, francophone, and allophone alike) supported the two bands and C4, and the ACLH relented.

To me, this whole thing has always been a farce. St-Jean is a celebration of Quebec, and should not necessarily be French-only. The province, Montreal especially, has so many immigrant communities from all over la Francophonie, Latin America, as well as English- and French-speaking Quebecers. If the celebration is to be true to its roots - a reunion of all Canadiens - then it should embrace the whole spectrum of the Quebecois populace. Anglo Quebecers of my parents' generation question why English bands would want to play at a St-Jean party anyway (remnants of the hostile language politics of the '70s and '80s), but for me, I feel that I should be as welcome as a québécois de souche.

I've written about how the language barrier can exist among musicians here. I don't think that, in my generation, it's an intentional thing: I think it just happens. Students that move to Quebec from out-of-province or out-of-country to study at McGill or Concordia don't always experience the entirety of Montreal, especially the events that are held in more French-speaking settings.

My first McGill combo was made up of an anglophone trombone player from Ontario, and a Québécois rhythm section. Our coach, Rémi Bolduc, conducted rehearsals in both languages. From the outset, that was my impression of how the music scene here should be. One thing I love about Montreal is that there is a lot of crosstalk between different musical scenes, although I still think there could be more. The world music scene is predominantly French-speaking here, and a handful of musicians aside, it doesn't really interface with the Anglo hip-hop or R&B communities, even when there is artistic kinship. McGill and Université de Montréal foster very different scenes - I've met and played with a handful of UdeM students and alumni, but we seem to hang out at different places, for the most part.

There's some musicians here that are catalysts for the intersection of multiple cultures, musics, and languages - Kalmunity is a hub for all sorts of great players, MCs, and poets; Gordon Allen has set up L'Envers with like-minded Québécois; Tim Brady is a bright spark in the predominantly Francophone new music/actuelle community here. For my part, I've often been the only Anglo in a band, and I love that setting. I get to practice my French, for one, and the experience of growing up here is often vastly different than growing up in Toronto. There's a whole history of Québécois pop and rock that doesn't make it over to Toronto. I invited a Francophone percussionist onto an Anglo R&B gig, and I really hope that all of us collaborate in different settings more often. The Karkwatson shows last year - an amalgam of Patrick Watson and Karkwa - are hopefully previews of more cross-linguistic explorations to come.


I've added the buzzworthy NPR and Nate Chinen blogs to the sidebar, as well as Peter Hum (whom I thought I added a long time ago, sorry Peter!) and Kelly Fenton's new link. Not on the sidebar but worthy of checking out is and head programmer/drummer Lucas Gillan's Twitter feed.

I may weigh in - tardy, as usual - on the hivemind's topics of influence/history, and the decline of jazz journalism.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Face 2 Face - Bell Centre 06/03/2009

I am an unabashed fan of piano pop, as I mentioned here. Billy Joel's 52nd Street album is my first musical memory - I credit it with my subconscious gravitation towards the piano. One of my favourite tracks on that album was always "Zanzibar," with its burning Freddie Hubbard solo; not that I knew that it was Freddie until many years later, but I assume it sowed the seeds of my later love for jazz. The original Face2Face tour, fourteen years ago, was my second arena show ever (my first was Neil Diamond at Maple Leaf Gardens). I've since seen Billy and Elton individually, but I haven't been to an arena show since Joel's Air Canada Centre show in 2000.

The sound was surprisingly stellar - aside from Joel's mic not being on for the first line of "Your Song," everything else was crisp and clear. In Elton's set, keyboardist Guy Babylon got his sonic due in his epic opening rendition of "Funeral for a Friend". I don't think people give Elton enough credit as a pianist - in "Burn Down the Mission" and throughout the night he showed his barrelhouse chops and still strong voice. "Madman Across the Water" was turned into a loose jam session, complete with a "Girl From Ipanema" quote from Elton. I saw a few people in my section leave - hopefully it was to fill the floor and not head for the exits after a couple of obscurities. "Rocket Man" keeps getting longer and longer, yet somehow more focused.

Billy's set was spot on, too. He's still in fine voice even though most of the songs have been lowered in key. "Angry Young Man" started a touch on the slower side but picked up and grooved all the way through. Joel, as always, kibbitzed with the audience: "I am not Billy Joel. I am René Angélil. Billy couldn't make it tonight - he's at home combing his hair." Carl Fischer burned up his solo spot in "Zanzibar" on both flugel and trumpet, with bassist Andy Cichon and drummer Chuck Burgi swinging surprisingly well. The break in "River of Dreams" featured James Brown-style stop-time ("hit me five times on the five chord!"). The backing vocals were superb and clear in both sets.

With both bands on stage, it didn't turn into sonic soup. Climaxing with piano trades on "Bennie and the Jets" (with quotes of "When I'm 64") and a Beatles medley of "Birthday/Back in the USSR," the bands left and let Joel and John to close the three-and-a-half hour show with "Candle in the Wind" and, of course, "Piano Man."

Set List
Billy Joel & Elton John, duo
Your Song
Billy & Elton w/ Mark Rivera
Just the Way You Are
Billy & Elton w/ Elton's band
Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
Billy & Elton w/ Billy's band
My Life

Elton John's set
Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting
Burn Down the Mission
Madman Across the Water
Tiny Dancer
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Rocket Man
Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
I'm Still Standing
Crocodile Rock

Billy Joel's set
Prelude/Angry Young Man
Movin' Out
Don't Ask Me Why
She's Always a Woman
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
River of Dreams
We Didn't Start the Fire
It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me
Only the Good Die Young

Billy & Elton & both bands
I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues
Uptown Girl
The Bitch is Back
You May Be Right
Bennie and the Jets
Birthday/Back in the USSR

Billy & Elton, duo
Candle in the Wind
Piano Man