Monday, March 29, 2010

Delivery is passionate

Montreal pianist (and one of my mentors) Josh Rager has a guest blog at Jenn Hardy's Pork Pie Jazz, responding to the recent hivemind about the cultural relevance and significance of jazz. While I agree with Ronan Guilfoyle's sentiment that jazz shouldn't be trying to play in pop's ballpark, and I concur with some of Josh's sentiments as well, there's a tangent to this that I've been thinking about quite a lot lately.

I've been talking to other colleagues lately about the idea of really owning one's music, or owning a song. The idea is hard to qualify, necessarily: it's one of those "I know it when I hear it" sorts of things. It's the sense of conviction and belief in the art one is creating, that comes across on record or from the stage. To my ears, it often comes across as the sound of exploration, a personal musical quest.

To be fair, I don't claim to own everything that I play. But I do endeavour to try. I can't lay claims to authenticity, really - Indigone covers everything from Bjork to Ornette Coleman, Bulgarian Women's Radio Choir tunes to Stevie Wonder. Hell, I lead a Brazilian group and I'm not Brazilian in the least. As a composer, improviser, and performer, every song has its own world that it inhabits and all that I try to do is live in that world for the time that I need to.

To me, the idea of cultural significance and relevance is just a signifier for "honesty." When a soloist plays a lick and it obviously sounds like they're deploying a lick, it rings false. Hearing the stitching within a solo has become a big pet peeve of mine. I think we, as critical listeners and musicians, can tell when a pop tune is in a performer's repertoire because they truly identify with it or because it's a ploy to appear hip. Or if someone uses a non-swing beat.

The progression of "fusion" music has become truly seamless, and that music - I'm thinking of Rudresh Mahanthappa's Kinsmen, Miguel Zenon's Esta Plena, the Gilfema +2 record, Maria Schneider's use of Afro-Peruvian rhythms - is some of the most thrilling and engaging, to my ears. Zenon's record, and the music of Guillermo Klein, is to me what "Latin jazz" always should have been - modern jazz coming from a set of Latin influences without necessarily having to exhibit all the trappings of its Latin heritage. All these artists are "culturally relevant" - they are embracing their life experiences and communicating them through music. That's all any of us can ever hope to achieve. Making "Body and Soul" culturally relevant doesn't necessarily mean turning it into an R&B slow jam - it means truly understanding what that lyric, that melody, is about and evoking that emotion however one can. What seems to deter a lot of non-aficionado listeners is that mediocre jazz - irrelevant jazz, if you will - reduces music to chord changes and scales. It can become a display of craft and science, rather than an expression of art.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Meu Brasil brasileiro

Trio Bruxo grew out of a love for Brazilian music, a passion I've been nurturing since 2005 (and which I've written about previously in this space). Modelled after the great Brazilian piano trios of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Zimbo Trio, Tamba Trio, Milton Banana Trio and Azymuth, it's been the vehicle of my exploration of what is loosely lumped under the term música popular brasileira (MPB), as well as lesser-known tunes from the samba and bossa nova songbook, Hermeto Pascoal's music, and forró. Befriending younger Brazilian musicians and Brazilian music fans in Montreal, as well as scouring the old intertubes, I got turned onto the music coming out of Brazil now - from the electro-samba of Domenico + Kassin and Céu to the hip-hop and R&B influenced Curumin and Ed Motta, to the brilliant amount of rock music coming out of Recife and other northeastern regions.

I was deeply inspired by the mix of electronics with traditional rhythms and the harmonic language I love from jazz and R&B. Working with producer heliponto at the 2007 RBMA, we created a track, "Algodão doce," that appeared on her album Eletronia. It was my attempt at a Milton Nascimento out-take, underpinned by heliponto's house beats and fly-by samples. At the time, we talked about pursuing that direction further - after all, traditional samba and house are both "four-on-the-floor." The idea of having a batucada of drum machines seemed intriguing, too.

After getting immersed in the Brazilian scene here in Montreal, specifically at Bobards' Brazilian Sundays, Rômmel Ribeiro and I started talking about all the fantastic music coming out of Brazil that nobody really knows about in Canada. We also talked about the spirit of collaboration on those legendary records of the 1970s - Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, Elis Regina and Zimbo Trio, Caetano and Banda Black Rio.

Thanks to l'Office Québec-Amériques pour la jeunesse, all these projects will be realized. As part of their Portfolio programme, Trio Bruxo will be travelling to São Paulo in September 2010. We will be finishing up an EP with heliponto for release on her label Tupy Brasil, as well as working with Liliane Braga and the Centro Cultural Rio Verde in Vila Madalena, among other partners, to create an artists' network between Montreal and São Paulo. The idea is to create a base of contacts, from musicians to venues, managers to festivals, to share with like-minded musicians in both cities to create year-round opportunities for performance.

Our first fundraiser will be this Sunday, March 28, 2010 at Bobards (4328 St-Laurent). All proceeds will be put towards our travel costs to make this trip happen. It also marks our debut in the Brazilian Sundays series. This is a real honour for me, as much of what I know about Brazilian music I have learned through the friendships made at Bobards. With your attendance and support, we hope to become part of the regular rotation of bands at the Brazilian Sundays (which have been running for over a decade now).

We sincerely hope to see you there. Trio Bruxo is: yours truly - keyboards/melodica/vocals; Nicolas Bédard - electric bass; Mark Nelson - drums/percussion.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Did you say I've got a lot to learn

In pedagogical news...

- My mentor, Jeff Johnston, who has been mentioned numerous times in this blog, is now writing himself over at J-Tonal. So far, some great insight on avoiding being overwhelmed, and approaches to solo piano. I feel like I'm studying again.

- I have never made any bones about the fact that Trio Bruxo is modelled after Zimbo Trio. How come no one told me they've run their own conservatory since 1973?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Mississippi (Montreal) Moonchile - Feb 27/2010

For the actual Nuit Blanche, I participated in Matana Roberts' latest workshopping of Coin Coin at the loft space L'Envers. I had reviewed Chapter 1: Gens du couleur libre, and Chapter 2: Mississippi Moonchile, for the now-defunct site Panpot when Matana had presented them during past editions of Suoni per il Popolo. Matana had e-mailed me while I was in Banff, asking me if I'd be into performing Chapter 2 during Montreal's Nuit Blanche. I immediately said yes. I had seen glimpses of the score for Chapter 1, and was highly intrigued by the process and structure of these pieces. Also, the opportunity to play alongside Montreal improvisers that I highly admire but rarely, if ever, work with, was one to seize. The band consisted of Matana - alto sax; Philippe Lauzier - bass clarinet; Sam Shalabi - guitar; Nicolas Caloia - bass; Isaiah Ceccarelli - drums; Molly Sweeney & Diego Poblete - voices; and myself on piano. A truly Montreal mix of musicians and people across various backgrounds coming together to create.

The most immediately engaging aspect of Coin Coin is its intensely personal nature, and how that may manifest itself musically. Mississippi Moonchile is based around an interview Matana did with her grandmother about her great-grandfather Rev. John Roberts, a sharecropper and travelling preacher from Mississippi. In the interview, Matana's grandmother referenced many traditional African-American spirituals that held great important in her life, as well as many important years. She steadfastly refused to talk about the bad times of growing up in Mississippi - as Matana recites through the piece, "There's some things I just can't tell you about, honey."

The macro structure of Mississippi Moonchile is very clear: written tunes and recitations are bridged by interludes of improvising, both entirely free (to get out of the tunes) and guided by graphic notation (when cued by Matana). The cues for the graphic sections are intervals corresponding to those milestone years. Within the graphic notation, there are often three or four things going on at once: a graphic gesture, an assigned fragment of a spiritual that provides the melodic content for the graphic gesture, and a dynamic marking. Sometimes there are additional specified pitches, voicings or tonal centres. The second type of graphic notation in the piece is a schematic that comes towards the end - a series of words in squares, joined by lines. It's essentially a "choose-your-own-adventure" approach to improvising, going through the schematic at one's own pace and in one's own direction. For all these reasons, my approach to improvising through this piece was less based on listening to everyone else and more on focusing on the directions given by Matana, both in the score and through conducting. So while I wasn't really aware of what everyone was doing individually, I will say that collectively there were some brilliant moments; that the entire piece had this level of intensity and drive; and that Matana sounded as strong, if not stronger, than I have heard her before.

The sound of the piece - with 6 instrumentalists and 2 vocalists transforming fragments of songs deeply entrenched in the African-American experience - is like that of a flashback sequence in a movie, with various memories colliding together in succession. Matana also brings in Fannie Lou Hamer's speech from the 1964 DNC towards the end of the piece (this time accompanied by a passing train from the nearby rail yard), an old traditional blues, and probably some other stuff that I missed. But because all that is happening is rooted in the blues and in spirituals, it's somewhat easier to follow the thread of the piece throughout the hour. I remember, as a listener a couple of years back, being able to catch snippets of the spirituals coming in and out.

In rehearsal, Matana said something that struck a chord in me: "This piece has a lot of bluesy sounds that normally I shy away from, because I feel like somehow they're expected of me." That prompts a lot of thoughts for me - as a white, Canadian, school-educated musician, I don't really feel like there are any musical or artistic expectations of me. I can't imagine what the burden of those kinds of presumptions feel like when one is trying to create (the same way many European musicians are automatically assumed to not swing or have a distant relationship with the blues). It also reminds me how powerful sound can be, and that many sounds are fraught with associations and links that we may not even be cognizant of.

Montreal High Lights (En Lumiere) - Feb 19/2010

The Montreal High Lights festival (Montréal en Lumière en français) is always capped off by Nuit Blanche, an all-night arts marathon that takes over the city. My own personal, literal Nuit Blanche was a week earlier.

My evening started with the launch of Christine Jensen's Jazz Orchestra album, Treelines, at Salle Gésu. Christine had given me an advance copy of the album while we were in Banff, but I had not had the chance to listen to it before the concert. All the better, as Gésu is easily one of my favourite rooms in the city, especially when its sound board is being manned by engineer extraordinaire Paul Johnston (who also recorded Treelines). He let the band master their own sound on stage, boosting solo microphones and guest soloist Ingrid Jensen's effects as necessary.

Christine's large ensemble music is a very natural outgrowth of her small band music. With brand-new compositions fresh in my ear from Banff, the relationship was very clear. Her large ensemble writing is at its best in burnished, harmonically rich chorales that unfold and embrace the listener, as in "Red Cedar," "Vernal Suite" and the 9/8 of "Western Yew." The introduction to Joel Miller's "Dropoff" (a tune Joel and I played together at our Mandigone concert in early January) cast the tune in a new light, elaborate without weighing down the source material. She also winked at Joel's own writing methods, with a double-time soli replete with "Moose the Mooche" fragments - compare with the soli from "Anonymity" from Joel's record Tantramar that leads into a quote from "Four," or the "Gingerbread Boy" references on "Rashers" from Mandala. Standout solos came courtesy of Ingrid, of course, deploying delay effects, using the harmon mute much like a synthesizer filter, and even an octave pedal at one point; and almost the entire saxophone section - Donny Kennedy on the opening "Arbutus" swinging hard and clean, and fellow altoist Erik Hove unleashing his contrasting flurries of creativity on "Red Cedar," and tenors Joel Miller and Chet Doxas conversing over "Dancing Sunlight." In a big band, it makes a true difference having a rhythm section that has a strong simpatico as a self-contained unit, and the quartet of Kenny Bibace, Steve Amirault, Fraser Hollins and Martin Auguste have played enough with each other and with Christine to propel the rest of the band as one powerful engine.

From Gésu, I split to go be a judge for Red Bull's Thre3style DJ competition. A nation-wide caravan led by MC Curtis Santiago and featuring DJ Scratch Bastid, the concept is to pit 8 DJs up against each other, give them 15 minutes in which they have to mix among at least 3 different genres, and see what they can do. The top 3 DJs win prizes and the winner goes to compete in the national finals (against winners from all the other cities) in Toronto during Canadian Music Week. It's an international thing, but I don't remember where the international finals are. My fellow judges included Alain Mongeau from MUTEK, current RBMA participant Ango, Parvez from Montreal State of Mind, Morgan "Beatseeker" Steiker, and DJs Hatchmatik and Scratch Bastid.

My experience as a DJ is more from a radio end than from an actual mixing/scratching/performance end, but I've become friends with great DJs in town. Seeing 8 vastly different DJs go on one after another was quite eye-opening for me, and it became apparent throughout the night who had skills and who did not, who could read the crowd and who did not. I kept relating it in my mind to a jazz jam session. Competitors were strongly advised not to repeat tracks (although a few did, especially by the end of the night), the same way at a jam session you're not supposed to call a tune that's already been played. Some competitors made some really intriguing transitions between styles - some just jump-cut from one tune to the next, and some fluidly got from one place to the other in some surprising ways. The winner of the Montreal battle, A-Rock, unanimously won over us judges (at least, all the guys I talked to). 2nd and 3rd places wound up in ties between a bunch of fantastic DJs that Montreal partygoers should be proud to call our own.