Monday, August 13, 2012

Rent party

The universe works in mysterious ways. Upon my return from NYC (and mere hours after I made a big note of Ethan Iverson's advice to check out Scott Joplin), I got an e-mail from trumpeter and artistic community organizer Ellwood Epps. Epps has been the catalyst of two galvanizing movements in Montreal's musique actuelle scene: the Mardi Spaghetti series at Le Cagibi, and his loft space, L'Envers. L'Envers, over the years, has hosted some of the best improvising talent at the local and international levels, and though they've had ups and downs over the years, they have continued to support the local scene and bring in artists that would not otherwise be booked in Montreal. Since they gave the bigger back room of 185 Van Horne over to La Plante, L'Envers has also been a prime rehearsal space: I have rehearsed there with ALICUANTA and with Matana Roberts' Coin Coin.

In these summer months, post-FIMAV, L'Envers has fallen on hard times. The lack of shows and rehearsal bookings has led to financial difficulty, and if they don't raise $1600 by August 24 they'll be forced to shut their doors - a move that would irrevocably damage Montreal's independent arts community. The rent party is happening August 24, and in keeping with the "rent party" tradition, Ellwood asked me to play some stride piano. Stride piano is really not my forte, so I will loosen the definition of it, and play some early swing and Great American Songbook tunes, and work out my left hand. Also on the bill:

- Belly Dance with Claire Litton
- Improvised music with Jack Wright

- Burlesque Performance with Miss Josephine, backed up by Live Band!
- Contemporary Music with the Bozzini String Quartet
- Short film by Karl Lemieux
- Synth Pop with Brusque Twins

NYC Travel Diary, August 2012

Sometime last year, I made a resolution to get down to NYC as often as time and money would allow. In lieu of actually moving there, I wanted to somewhat resume the commuting I had done in 2006-07 when I was participating in the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop. Over the years I've cultivated a strong community of friends and colleagues in the city, and when I went down in 2011 after a two year absence I realized that I just couldn't wait that long between visits anymore.

Immediately after my friends Moonstarr and The One Tash got married, I hopped on the bus down to NYC. I didn't realize how much traffic there would be on a Monday morning to get to NYC, and when I got to the bus station I was about 6 people too late to wind up on the 8:30 express bus, and barely made it on to the 9 am milk run. Luckily, most people on that bus were headed straight to New York, so to compensate for our incredibly long waiting time at the border (two agents were attempting to process three bus-loads of people), our bus avoided most of the interim stops like Glens Falls and Ridgewood, NJ. I've had fairly good luck in my bus trips over the years, except for one ride down to Toronto, where a drunk guy got on in Kingston and lost his cool when a woman starting painting her nails in front of us. It seems as though that my fellow passengers on this particular ride had no sense, or at least a very different definition, of what "using headphones at a reasonable volume" meant. After a while I gave up on even trying to listen to my own iPod as other people's music devices and ringtones exceeded my personal comfortable listening levels. I feel your pain, Jason!

After checking into my Bushwick hostel, I headed back into Manhattan for the forró night at Café Wha, led by percussionist and vocalist Davi Vieira. Their repertoire is a fun mix of traditional forró, and reggae-influenced MPB. It feels almost like a backyard jam session, with solos and laughter running rampant through the set. From there, I headed to Richie Cannata's longstanding jam at the Bitter End, where his Billy Joel band colleague Tommy Byrnes was holding down the bar. I've hung out with Tommy when the band has come through Montreal, so it was strange to see him in NYC. (This was not the only time this would occur.)

Tuesday I had coffee with vocalist Karlie Bruce, who sings backup with Montreal Jazz Fest headliners Escort, and is about to launch her first album Stateside. It reminds me a lot of the Montreal sound of Karkwa and Patrick Watson, references that don't really have the same effect in Brooklyn as they do here. She took me to an Aussie café in Williamsburg that actually understood what an allongé is (as opposed to the café near my hostel who looked at me quizzically when I asked for a long espresso that morning). From there, I had rehearsal with my Indigone cohorts Alex Mallett and Matt Rousseau. Alex and I haven't played the Indigone book together since 2009, and there's a few tunes (notably his contributions to the repertoire) that I haven't played since that time myself. It was like putting on an old pair of shoes. Alex and I find a pocket together and there's nearly a decade's worth of trust in our friendship and partnership. Alex referred Matt for the gig and he got through our music admirably, especially with only one rehearsal and a minimum of preparation beforehand.

I got into the East Village as quickly as I could for Cyro Baptista's set with Beat the Donkey at the Stone. The room was strewn with various percussion, a floor for tap dancing, and keyboards that have definitely seen better days. Cyro and four band members came out and blew in harmonized beer bottles - something Hermeto Pascoal did a few months ago in Burlington - before the musicians manned their stations. The set began with a traditional song on ngoni and kora. I didn't get the ngoni player's name but he had a rich, bassy tone and anchored the band well - he was a good singer too. Baptista is a descendant of Hermeto Pascoal and Tom Zé, taking folkloric Brazilian music and running it through a kaleidoscopic sense of improvisational whimsy. Using Zorn or Morris-like conduction he would interrupt these fantastic grooves and rhapsodies on Brazilian folk songs - I never in my life expected to hear "Meu maracatu," a tune I learned in São Paulo, dissolve into noise guitar, or "Pisa na fulo" on a harmonized and amplfied Jew's harp. It was the first show I've seen at the Stone that made me want to dance (but that's because I missed the Mehliana premiere).

I walked along 3rd street westward to Zinc Bar for Orrin Evans' "Evolution" jam session. His quartet's opening two tunes consisted of musicians I didn't know - bassist Alex Hernandez, drummer Kassa Overall, and a sax player whose name I didn't catch - truly getting into the definition of Black American Music. Overall put a semi-"Poinciana" beat on "Bemsha Swing," and Evans' responded with some two-handed gospel chords. It was the best music of the night, outside of bassist Ben Wolfe playing "If I Should Lose You" in duo with vocalist JD Walter. The jam, while efficiently run by Evans, devolved into the trap most NYC sessions fall prey to - the idea that one needs to play all their shit on every tune because they're at a jam session in New York City. I got up and played "What Is This Thing Called Love?" with a few horn players, and my favourite moment was when the band dropped out and Hernandez and I got to play a couple of choruses of duo. I really dug his playing, both as a listener and as a player. He's a name I will watch out for in the future.

Wednesday's itinerary focused on Lincoln Center. My BMI colleague, Mariel Berger, had told me about the score collection at that NYPL branch many years ago, though I had never had time to go out there and investigate. I spent the afternoon lost in the official score of West Side Story, Golijov's Three Songs, and Soul Jazz's coffee table book of classic bossa nova record covers. I finally got to experience the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival in Damrosch Park, programmed by the indefatigable Bill Bragin. Israel's Alaev Family were new to me, and stole the show with their propulsive Bouchari folk music, somewhere between cantorial music and the odd-metered dances of the Balkans. I had initially gone to see Dr. L. Subramaniam, the master of South Indian violin. It was only when I re-checked the website that morning that I realized it was a project called Global Fusion and I somewhat tempered my expectations. Featuring guitarist Larry Coryell, harmonica player Corky Siegel, and others, all the nuances of Carnatic music got trampled over by keyboards, and 4/4 drums. I wish the violins (Subramaniam and his son, Ambi) were more prominent in the mix, and that the mridangam player had had more room to step out. Wanting to end my night on a high note, I walked down 8th Ave to Guantanamera to check out Pedrito Martinez. I'm not sure how a restaurant that small can contain that much powerful music. Pedrito and company just slayed, with rhythmic trickery that I still can't fully comprehend, and a pianist and vocalist whose montunos were the motor of the evening that never faltered. It really is too bad that there isn't room to dance in there, though.

Thursday was devoted to the reunion of Indigone, at Freddy's Bar in Park Slope. It was great to see a bunch of old friends, most of them McGill affiliated and now living in Brooklyn. It was a thrill to play those old tunes again. We were followed by guitarist Todd Clouser, who used his set to explore the outer limits of his music with Rick Parker on trombone and electronics and drummer Tim Kuhl. Definitely not what I was expecting him to do at all, and all the more riveting for it.

Friday, I had had a multitude of plans that all got derailed once vibraphonist James Shipp posted on Facebook that Kate McGarry would be at Joe's Pub. I've been a fan of Kate since The Target landed in my lap via Exclaim! a few years ago, and she's one of the many artists that frustratingly never get booked in Montreal. Her set centred around her recastings of standards in styles ranging from truly rooted swing to dark and brooding straight eighths (her expansive rendition of "The Man I Love" gave it an entirely different meaning). The highlights of the set were her own gorgeous setting of a Hafez poem, in duo with guitarist Keith Ganz, that led into "We Kiss In a Shadow," and the closing Toninho Horta medley which showcased drummer Clarence Penn's killer samba feel. I'm a very happy man when he lets loose that way, as he did with Grégoire Maret a month ago. It was a treat to hear organist Gary Versace in this more straightahead setting, compared to the trio with Ellery Eskelin and Gerald Cleaver that I heard a couple of months back at Sala Rossa. Playing without a bassist, Versace and Ganz accessed a wide palette of colours. One of the other non-musical highlights was having Fred Hersch at the table behind me - I've never been nervous while being an audience member before. I couldn't work up the nerve to introduce myself, as he was at a table with his partner and two friends, and seemingly not interested in talking shop.

Shop talk was reserved for Saturday at Ethan Iverson's master class. Ethan recognized me but only put it all together well into the master class - "I'm only used to seeing you in Canada," he said. It was a small master class, with only two other pianists in attendance - Martin Porter, and a player from Jersey whose name I forget. Ethan, as usual, had great counsel and strong opinions delivered in a forthright and humourous manner. I have a list a page long of things to check out now, from Stravinsky's piano music to Wally Rose to the more obscure Joplin rags. He talked through a Lee Konitz line he was learning for a recording session this week, a knotty piece of architecture that was a pain to memorize. It was probably one of the most edifying experiences, watching a pianist who can quite literally play most anything at the drop of a hat, work through some problems at the instrument.

My final night of the week found me back in Park Slope with Alex Mallett, as part of the Brooklyn Beet Day at Korzo. Featuring a lineup of singer-songwriters that are based out of the neighbouring Roots Café, I played with Alex's band (completed by ex-Montrealer Alan Biller) and then continued to sit in with Gypsy George (with whom Alex plays bass). I also had some killer fish and chips, with beet ketchup, and beet sugar vodka was being passed out for the tasting. I felt like an honourary member of the Roots Café crew for a night. It was a beautiful send-off and a strong reminder that I need to return.