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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 8 May 2012


by Marc Chénard / May 1, 2012

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A Lifetime in a Minute: A New York Winter
by Ellwood Epps

Somehow I was blessed enough to spend the winter in Harlem, in a room my hero Wadada Leo Smith had once lived in. Each morning I would get up, splash water on my face, and raise the blinds, speaking the words of 13th century Zen teacher Dögen: “Great is the matter of birth and death. Life slips quickly by. Time waits for no one. Wake up! Wake up! Don’t waste a moment!” Here was a place and a time to inspire me to work hard and practice intensely.

I had received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to continue studying with my longtime trumpet teacher, Laurie Frink, and had found a small studio apartment to sublet from a good friend. I packed some clothes and books in a suitcase, put my bike in a box, and boarded a Greyhound bus.

It was so liberating to take a break from my work presenting concerts at L’envers and the Mardi Spaghetti series in Montreal that I immediately fell into long days of trumpet practice, punctuated by bike rides (over the Harlem River bridges) and swimming at Riverbank State Park. I’m a late bloomer; here I was at age 35 practicing more than I ever had. The trumpet has a slow unfolding through one’s life, and one can build seriously on fundamental technique well into adult life. On a physical level, technique is regenerated along with the body; good health and lots of hard work make you sound good.

This was clearer than ever while listening to Wadada Leo Smith play two birthday concerts at Roulette. At age 70, his trumpet playing seems stronger than ever; the man obviously takes care of himself. Sound exploding in space, pure blues, no hesitation, and such an uplifting spirit! Hearing this master perform with six groups was a spark, an inspiration that fed my desire to move forward with my music at any cost.

Over the weeks, I heard other greats like Herb Robertson and Roy Campbell Jr., caught up with my contemporaries (Nate Wooley, Peter Evans, Brad Henkel) and discovered players like Amir ElSaffar. Hearing so many different trumpeters (at least eighteen of them in three months) whetted my appetite for new experiences, and made me hungry to work on my own playing.

Making Music
The more I practiced, the more I wanted to get out and make music with people. Improvising is basically a group activity, with performance at its heart. I’ve never been much for theory as a notion separate from playing, and I’m most at home on a stage with a trumpet in hand. During 15 years of visits to the city I’d met plenty of wonderful musicians. I had also gotten to know many New Yorkers both from my time as a student at the Banff Centre’s Jazz and Creative Music Workshops and through my presenting and playing with them in Montreal.

During my stay, I played with bassists Lisle Ellis (a Canadian expat whose music and friendship have inspired me through difficult times), James Ilgenfritz (also active as a concert presenter at Roulette), Sean Conly, drummers Lukas Ligeti and Michael T.A. Thompson (as uplifting as he was welcoming), saxophonist Michael Attias, and two violists, Mat Maneri and Frantz Loriot. Making music with these folks renewed my spirits and nourished my creativity.

While the days of performing ‘till 4 a.m. and then jamming past dawn are gone, the New York house session is alive and well. I spent many hours visiting new and old friends, making music and exchanging views on the state of the art and the plight of the musician in today’s crazy world. Yet a thread of critical optimism seemed to run through it all (life isn’t easy but the music is alive!), along with streams of tea, coffee, and wine.

The house concert is also a vital part of the music scene across New York; I performed in some wonderful living rooms and heard some amazing music. In an expensive city where music can be quite commercialized, musicians and listeners need these open doors. As times get tough around the world for creative music, I think the home will increase as an important place to hear and make music. These shows are informal and friendly, and can be very well organized, as in the case of the series ‘Ze Couch’.

New York City was good for me. My playing opened up, I started writing music again. I made music with people with whom I’ll surely be working with again. The energy of the city was a boost and the style of daily social interaction brought out a directness in me that feels good. I even felt at home speeding down Fifth Avenue through traffic on my bike.

I’m hoping to keep this momentum with me, now that I’m getting back into Montreal life. There is a latitude of possibilities here that would be extremely hard to come by in New York or elsewhere. (Keeping L’envers, the space I operate, open for four years would be nearly impossible in Brooklyn.) I feel the smallness of the Montreal scene, but I’m very aware of how original some of its sounds are. I hope to keep sharing the urgency of the music with some special musicians, and to make the very best of what I find at hand, right between the past and the future, wherever the music brings me. It isn’t easy being a musician anywhere right now, but music can bring about things that are more needed than ever. Life does slip quickly by. Fortunately there is always somewhere to wake up, and the music is never far from that place.

Ellwood Epps will perform on May 16 with the legendary bassist Henry Grimes at l’Envers. (See Jazz+ calendar listing at end of this section.)

Expanding the Context

by Alain Londes

Robert Glasper and Vijay Iyer are two pianists being given much press these days. The former seems determined to shake things up, and his latest recording is a mash up of neo-soul, rap, and hip-hop with the help of some of today’s pop superstars. Iyer, in stark contrast, is able to focus on a more pensive yet methodical approach, perhaps influenced by his physics and math background. In both cases, these keyboardists are moving the music in distinct directions and each merits a close listening.

Robert Glasper Experiment: Black Radio
Blue Note Records 88333

Black Radio kicks off on a mixed virtual radio program announcement leading to a mic check. Erykah Badu then launches into a groovy smooth rendition of “Afro Blue” that’s quite different from the original stylings of the Mongo Santamaria classic. Glasper is heard in the background with Casey Benjamin adding some flute obbligatos. The repertoire includes pleasant surprises like David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione”, reinterpreted with much tenderness thanks to Glasper’s own musical take on it with longtime collaborator Bilal. This is a great example of how the whole band, which includes Derrick Hodge on bass and Chris Dave on drums, is well balanced with the respective singers. Nirvana’s hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is worked over here with enhanced synthesized background vocals from Lala Hathaway. As for the title, Black Radio, Glasper explains in his notes that he’s referencing the black box of an airplane, known to survive no matter what. One can only wonder what pieces will have lasting power and what material will fall by the wayside. This album has generated considerable interest and a following as well, yet it would be a stretch to place it within the jazz idiom, even in its more daring forms.

Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando
Act Records 9524-2 (Also available in LP format)

In his newest trio outing, Vijay Iyer gets his bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore to push the envelope without taking it all the way out into the avant-garde. Its title says it well: there is a sense of forward movement throughout. Case in point is “Lude”, where the momentum builds to a peak before it breaks off suddenly, the bass sustaining the feel as it returns to its point of departure. The gentle swing that graces Herbie Nichols’ “Wildflower” adds variety to the project. In “Mmmhmm” by Flying Lotus and singing bassist Thundercat, there are fast paced and lyrical piano runs, with Crump bowing the melody as if he’s stretching it over Gilmore’s driving groove. Parallel to the Bowie song on Glasper’s project, Iyer slips in among his originals a few pop gems, like Rodney Temperton’s “The Star of a Story”, a memorably distinct and catchy 1970s tune popularized by George Benson. “Human Nature” takes Michael Jackson’s interpretation into a longer and enriched rhythmic and tonal excursion, whereas Ellington’s “The Village of The Virgins” is given a soulful reading. Accelerando should draw new listeners to Iyer’s work, especially fans of that other heavily promoted trio, The Bad Plus.

Voices with a Difference
by Annie Landreville

Theo Bleckmann Hello Earth! – The Music of Kate Bush
Winter and Winter 910 183-2

Vocalist Theo Bleckmann, who has performed with such talented artists as Meredith Monk, John Zorn, Laurie Anderson and Anthony Braxton, has tackled an ambitious project. Indeed, for he has taken on Kate Bush’s high-end pop (which has not always aged well) and updated it into the new century. The bulk of the works revisited on this disc were recorded in the 80s, and Bleckmann’s recastings stay true to most of them; in “Under Ice and in the thoroughly modern “You Running up that Hill”, the drums of John Hollenbeck” are the main focus, allowing the singer to float on top of the rhythms. Bleckmann shows his punk rock side in “Violin”, goes jazzy in “Saxophone” and gives “Army Dreamers” the raucous spirit of a drinking song. His voice is well suited to Bush’s melodies and complex rhythms. Known for his impressive range, Bleckmann is wisely restrained on this recording, giving the melodies just the right, soft touch. The band, comprised of violinist Caleb Burhans, bassist Skúli Sverrisson and Hollenbeck, plays with a wide variety of colours, while letting Bleckmann’s sensual voice speak for itself. One could have hoped for a more daring approach, especially considering the talented musicians involved, but on the whole the album succeeds in leading Bush’s pop towards new horizons. Bleckmann has managed this while respecting the original textures, achieving a balance that is rare with this type of album. An elegant offering.

Little Red Big Bang

Unquestionably more adventurous than the preceding tribute, this album is original in every sense of the word. This Danish group has served up an odd combination; they have used a base of jazz and improvisation and mixed in songs with memorable melodies and texts, a combination that works beautifully. The general feel of this disc is reminiscent of the legendary collaboration between Brigitte Fontaine and the Art Ensemble of Chicago on the recording Comme à la radio. The theatrical spirit and eccentric cabaret style leaves listeners longing for a live performance. Two composers are at the heart of this project: singer Elena Setién and singer-pianist Johanna Borchert, both iconic figures of avant-garde music in Denmark. They are joined here by the cream of the crop of the contemporary Danish jazz scene, including Jesper Løvdal on tenor sax, double bass player Jonas Westergaard and drummer-composer Peter Bruun. As with their previous project (Little Red Suitcase), Little Red Big Bang is brimming with free spirit and energy, readily mixing free jazz, simple but memorable melodies and verses by Setién and Borchert that even flirt with poetry when added to the words of Rainer Maria Rilke in the piece “Herbst.”

Translation: Dayna Lamothe

Orchestral Music, Past + Present

Benoît Delbecq: Crescendo in Duke
Disques NATO 4375

French pianist Benoît Delbecq is definitely riding the waves these days. In 2011, he was awarded France’s prestigious Charles-Cros prize for both solo and trio albums, produced here in Canada under the Songlines imprint. Barely a year has passed and this new, somewhat surprising project has hit the market. Considering his strong leanings toward classical contemporary music and his frequent dabblings with prepared piano, Duke Ellington’s music seems a most unlikely choice. Yet, with the backing of record producer Jean Rochard, the pianist pays tribute to the Duke and performs 15 pieces, mostly from the Maestro’s late period. Delbecq has two very contrasting groups: for one, there is a mainly European septet, rounded off by New York tenorman Tony Malaby, playing on nine of the tracks; on four others, he is joined by a five-piece wind section and two percussionists hailing from the producer’s current homebase of Minneapolis. Rounding off the album are a short solo piano finale and a brief duo with Steve Argüelles doing some electronics in lieu of drums. The 1966 “Goutelas Suite” is very much the centrepiece of this side, and it is performed with a first rate band that includes the superb veteran British clarinettist Tony Coe (now recovering from a stroke). Written to mark the restoration of a French castle, the work is not Duke’s finest, but it doesn’t put a wrinkle in his incredible musical legacy. The European ensemble brings a fresh perspective to the piece, respecting the original but offering more than a mere exercise in style. The American ensemble for its part is a little brasher, funky to whit, with insistent bass and percussion and woodwind punches in works like “Portrait of Wellman Braud” (Ellington’s tribute to his first bass player). All told Delbecq succeeds in paying tribute to the master while proving that old music can live on beyond its time. While there is no shortage of Ellington tributes out there, this disc is sure to stay fresh for years to come. Marc Chénard

Barry Guy, London Jazz Composers Orchestra:
Harmos Schaffhausen Concert
Intakt DVD 151

To the ancient Greeks, harmos signified “joint, junction”. It is no coincidence that Barry Guy chose Harmos as the title of his masterwork, in that it marvelously links composition with improvisation, form with freedom. The work was written in the late 1980s, at a time when this composer/bass player was looking to reaffirm his interest in melody and this work would serve as a benchmark for his large ensemble, the 18-piece London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO). The original 1989 recording ushered in an era of great creative and recording output, placing the orchestra at the head of the class, alongside the Globe Unity Orchestra, both united on stage that same year. In 1998, a second historic performance of Harmos occurred at the Berlin Jazz Festival, this time as a farewell offering. By then Guy had already shifted his focus on his smaller New Orchestra (BGNO). Yet, a full decade later, in 2008, the LJCO was reassembled for the Schaffhausen festival in Switzerland, where they performed a truly memorable rendition of the work, which has thankfully been immortalized on this DVD. Long-time colleagues Evan Parker, Paul Lytton, Trevor Watts, and Howard Riley (who Guy advertises as a new member, though he played with them back in 1970!) form a cohesive whole, even though the group is no longer strictly made up of Londoners (Swedes Mats Gustafsson and Per Åke Holmlander, Germans Conrad and Johannes Bauer and the Swiss Lucas Niggli have joined the cast). All 18 musicians here give an outstanding performance of the 40-minute work, whose hymn-like themes stand alongside improvisations that are at turns rousing, scathing, poignant and unbridled. Félix-Antoine Hamel

Translation: Dayna Lamothe

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