Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Canadian Jazz Playlist

I received a few requests to post the playlist I used to accompany the full lecture that is prefaced in the previous entry. Here it is:

Phil Nimmons: The Atlantic Suite (excerpt)
Paul Bley: Ida Lupino
Kenny Wheeler: Smatter

Norman Symonds/Duke Ellington: Nameless Hour
Ron Collier/Duke Ellington: Aurora Borealis
Sonny Greenwich: The Nightingale

Jean Derome: Partie De Carte
Normand Guilbeault: Tresor D'Arme
Fran├žois Houle 5: Seventy-three

Andy Milne: Don't Let It Bring You Down
Marilyn Lerner: Honga
John Stetch: Baba Bakes

Andrew Rathbun: True Stories
Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra: Seafever
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Transit

Special thanks to Mark Miller for a few of those suggestions, and to my Italian hosts—particularly Francesco Martinelli—for being so gracious and hospitable.

Watch for my report on Siena Jazz in an upcoming issue of DownBeat.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Riffing on Canadian Jazz

I'm leaving tomorrow for 10 days at the Siena Jazz Workshop, where I'll be both participant and observer. In addition to researching profiles for DownBeat on pianists John Taylor and Franco D'Andrea—both of whom are on the workshop faculty this year—I'll be delivering a lecture in the workshop's jazz history series.

My topic dates back to lengthy email (and occasionally phone) discussions I used to have with the late jazz writer Eric Nisenson. Eric was one of the first people I met online in the early '90s, and he encouraged me to expose him to what was happening in Canada's jazz scene. The basis of his interest was a comment that Miles Davis made to him while Eric was trying to wrestle the trumpeter into sitting down for formal interviews for an oft-promised autobiography (Quincy Troupe finally succeeded where Eric failed, but that's another story). Davis told Eric that he was the only white guy besides Gil Evans who struck him as truly colour blind, which Davis attributed to Evans' birth in Canada. That always struck me as one of those outrageously—and usually purposefully—provocative things Davis said, since Evans was barely out of a crib when his mother moved him from Toronto to California, but we Canadians love to claim him as our own if we can.

Eric's interest in Canadian music was also sparked by his deep love of Glenn Gould's music, his attraction to the work of Kenny Wheeler, and his abiding dislike of anything Oscar Peterson played.

It was a good time in Canadian jazz, with a lot of young(ish) players coming up, and I was happy to share tips and recordings with Eric.

Our conversations about the music led to him encouraging me to write a survey book. I demurred, saying that my friend Mark Miller had already cornered that subject, but Eric persisted, saying that there was a book to be written on what Wheeler, Paul Bley and Sonny Greenwich (an artist he knew about—through Davis—but hadn't heard until I sent him some CDs) had in common. Gould's landmark Idea of North and his various essays on the influence of the Canadian landscape on artists made Eric believe there was a link there. Good idea, I agreed, but how to interest a publisher in something like that? An academic publisher, perhaps, but not likely a mainstream one.

So, years passed, as did Eric, but I kept coming back to the idea. Every so often I'd ask a Canadian musician if the theory rang true for them, and eventually got a chance to ask Wheeler, Bley and Greenwich. No one ever dismissed it as rubbish, although Wheeler—as recently as two weeks ago, when I asked him about it again—couldn't put his finger on any specific influences.

It's certainly true that Canada is distinct from the United States in many ways, and at a symposium organized by George Lewis and Howard Mandel a few years ago at Columbia University, I spoke about how some Canadian jazz musicians (pianists Andy Milne, D.D. Jackson, Marilyn Lerner and John Stetch) retained rich elements of their ethnic heritage in their music.

In Siena, I'm going to expand on the topic, finally giving Eric his due on the validity of this theory. We'll see where it goes from there. Here's the introduction to what will be a 75-minute presentation with music samples, and hopefully some give-and-take with my European audience.


Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said that living next to the United States was like “sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast is, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

If such is the case for things like trade and politics, it is amplified when it comes to art and culture, and no more so than when the topic is jazz, which my neighbours to the south love to call “America’s classical music.”

So, sleeping next to this beast, how does one create music that both respects—and builds upon tradition—and reflects your own culture?

How do you tell your own story… in your own musical dialect… when the story has shared roots like jazz?

It is a challenge that exists not just for Canadian improvisers, but for those who live anywhere in the world.

The elephant is that big!

For those who may not know, Canada does have a distinctive cultural voice… in visual arts, it is the raw, wild landscapes of A.Y. Jackson and his fellow members of the Group of Seven. It is the expressionism of the west coast rainforest, as expressed by Emily Carr.

In literature, it is the psychological inner views of Robertson Davies, the futurist feminism of Margaret Atwood, and the merciless self-examination of Mordecai Richler.

These are forms of expression you will not find in any other nation.

In his prolific writing for radio, the Canadian concert pianist Glenn Gould frequently addressed what he called ‘The Idea of North.’

By that, he meant that Canada gave its citizens a sense of space, isolation and alienation that was their own. And yet, there was always the elephant looming large.

So, artists in Canada develop their own voice, their own approach to storytelling—whether with a brush, a computer or a saxophone—but the lure is often there from the other. The grass the elephant grazes on looks sweeter. And clearly, it’s nourishing. There is enough of it… well, to feed an elephant.

But Canada—like any nation—is not static.

Like Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, its face is constantly changed by global migration patterns.

It reflects the trend of urbanization that every country is undergoing.

How that affects Canada, and how Canada reflects that reality through its arts, is also unique.

America is frequently referred to as ‘a melting pot.’

The theory is that America is a land of immigrants, who have arrived in wave after wave since the 1600s. But regardless of where the waves have originated—from Eastern Europe, Ireland, Italy, the Middle East or Southeast Asia—the people who arrive in America want to be American.

They desire to blend in.

To melt into the masses.

Canada has always been different.

While many of our immigrants come from the same places, those who decide to stay in Canada more often keep their own cultural identities.

Or at least they blend their ethnic identities with the Canadian identity.

And that reality is the story of jazz in Canada.

Our artists have developed distinctive voices.

They’ve been lured to the sweeter grass. And many times they’ve returned.

And they have kept their own distinctive cultural identities, and blended into with both the Northern Voice and with the tradition of improvised jazz.

Monday, July 04, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival Wrap Up

Well, the numbers are in, and it looks like Canada's second-oldest jazz festival isn't about to climb out of the $80,000 hole it created in 2010. As Peter Hum points out in this overview, bad weather killed attendance at a number of the pricy outdoor mainstage events. Certainly, the small turnout for Elvis Costello was understandable; I've never seen it rain that hard and long in Ottawa. Anyone considering attending that night could be excused for finding anything better to do indoors.

The big drop off in attendance for Return To Forever points to a knottier problem. When they appeared before a huge crowd three years ago the weather was also pretty threatening. I recall that it had rained heavily around 6 p.m., and by showtime it was overcast and soupy. So, did Al DiMeola make for the difference in attendance, or was it something more like the curiosity factor that drew people out in 2008, but kept them away this year? Those are the kinds of questions that will make festival programmers lose sleep.

The Ottawa festival has not fared well over the years when it comes to catching a break on the weather. Perhaps the low point was a 2004 concert by a supergroup co-fronted by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. A huge crowd stood through a steady downpour on a cold night. If it had been anyone less than those Miles Davis alumni onstage they would have fled in droves, I'm sure.

So, what to do? It's going to be something the festival will have to wrestle with. As long as it's spending big bucks to put superstar acts on the mainstage it will be rolling the dice. And yet, without an act that can draw 11,000 or 12,000 to the park, you can't hope to subsidize name artists like Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau and Kurt Elling in expensive soft-seat venues.

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #7

Daniel Lanois always brings his best home.

Last time he visited the city of his birth it was with a crack quartet that cooked at a slow boil while he charmed the crowd at a soft-seat suburban theatre. That was before the motorcycle accident that put a crimp in his plans to launch a new project, Black Dub, on last summer's festival circuit.

Now in the midst of an extensive tour that started in May and ends in August, Black Dub closed out the mainstage concerts in spectacular form. With Lanois paying homage to the beauty of the Chateau Laurier Hotel—and hoping thieves don't steal the copper from its roof—and reminding the audience that he was born in Ottawa, even though he grew up in Gatineau and launched his career in Hamilton, the band illustrated that good music trumps the notion that only jazz belongs in the headline position. I wouldn't have passed up this show to see anyone I can think of in what purists consider the jazz universe.

Front and centre, of course, were the astounding vocals of Trixie Whitley. Prior to seeing the band, I couldn't decide what was more impressive: that this huge, multi-layered voice comes from a lithe Belgian woman, or the fact that she sounds this seasoned and soulful at just 22. Now, I'm just as impressed that she has what it takes to sit down next to Brian Blade—one of the best drummers in jazz—and thicken the beat behind Lanois and bassist Jim Wilson.

For all his sonic genius, which he manages to translate to the live setting in large measure, Lanois always impresses most with his ability to connect to his audience in a low-key, workmanlike manner. He's never too far removed from the kid who created atmospheric sounds in the basement of his mother's house and found himself swept up in the wake of people like Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. With his jean jacket, grizzled beard, glasses and toque (an odd look on a hot day) he still seems like a guy you might have caught playing in one of the old taverns that used to grace the streets of Gatineau.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #6

Saturday evening's one-time-only meeting of iconic trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler, pianist Myra Melford, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and singer Diana Torto brought together four very distinctive voices, and the degree to which one appreciated the show had a lot to do with which voice you came to hear.

Those who came to hear Melford were given short shrift. She was only cut loose once during the set—in an extended, stops-out duet with Irabagon. The young saxophonist, who won over a number of Ottawa fans last year as part of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, showed flashes of his brilliance, but for a man whose last recording was essentially a 75-minute solo, it was meagre stuff.

This was a showcase for Torto, a highly mannered Italian singer with a good range, great tone and exceptional enthusiasm, and the 81-year-old master Wheeler. The expatriate Canadian, who sticks to flugelhorn these days and has some serious mobility challenges, still has a totally original sound. All the signature intervallic leaps, twists and breathy false notes are still evident, and while he is not as strong a player as he once was, his melancholic touch is sure. And then, there are his beautiful, finely wrought compositions, which tug at your heart and send your spirit soaring.

While there were smiles all around the bandstand, and a spirit of triumph at the concert's conclusion, more than a few in the audience used the adjective "sad" in describing the show.

In sum, it was evening of both diminished and fully realized expectations and emotions. Even if you didn't get what you came for, you left with the knowledge that you had witnessed something unique.