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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 3

Renewing Jazz Improvisation

by Philip Ehrensaft / November 1, 1999

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Three of the world's top jazz musicians, Chicago's Georg Graewe, New York's Gerry Hemingway and Amsterdam's Eric Reijseger, will perform together at the Bibliothèque Nationale on Saturday evening, November 13. This promises to be one of the most important Montreal jazz concerts of the 1990s. Pianist-composer Graewe leads ensembles ranging from jazz trios to a classical chamber orchestra. Take Bill Evans's harmonic sensibilities and extend them tounprecedented levels of complexity, build in classical music from Mozart through Darmstadt, fold in exceptional virtuosity on the keyboard, and then employ all of this in free improvisation, and you have Graewe's new paths for jazz piano.

Hemingway is redefining the role of the jazz drummer as a contributing instrumentalist rather than primarily a time keeper. His understated but highly rhythmic playing has a sense of structure that is unique in jazz improvisation. This is linked to his accomplishments as a recognized classical composer.

While the cello made a late entry into jazz at the end of the 1940s, Reijseger carries cello improvisation to an entirely new level. His performances shift from playing the cello like a guitar, using it as a percussion instrument and plucking it like a jazz bass, to bowed playing that is as "cellistic" as Pablo Casals.

The whole of the trio is greater than the sum of its individual members. They have rare and uncanny abilities to sense each other's moves and make lightning-fast responses. Audiences often have trouble believing that such precise and thoughtful music can really be the outcome of free improvisation rather than composition. There are few jazz ensembles, or classical string quartets, for that matter, where the members are so closely attuned to one another.

Graewe, Hemingway and Reijseger have performed together for a decade. Each musician has had a multifaceted career, and isskeptical of artificial boundaries between jazz, classical music and Euro Improv. This skepticism translates into the unusually broadmusical vocabulary employed in the trio's improvisations.

All three were born in the 1950s and thus belong to the middle generation of Avant-Garde jazz innovators. Hemingway was only three when Ornette Coleman's first recording set off shock waves in 1958. The rhythmic force that permeated the music of the Avant-Garde pioneers was rooted in the rhythm and blues that they heard and played as adolescents. Similarly, a middle-generation innovator like Hemingway stores soul music and rock in his grey cells. This explains why the subtle sounds and stretched, shifting tempos of his drumming also have such a pronounced swing.

Curious young musicians like Hemingway, Graewe and Reijseger were inspired bythe pioneers, but wanted to try their own things. Cecil Taylor's dense clustering ofnotes and percussive playing set the tone for the first generation of free piano improvisation. Graewe, in contrast, emphasizes sparelinear development. While the pioneersrejected bop's focus on chord changes, Graewe took the changes to places they had never been. Born and educated in Germany during the height of the influence of the Darmstadt school, Graewe also had the inclinationand fluent ability to integrate serial elements into jazz improvisation. Stir this together and you have a powerful and unprecedented brew.

The Graewe-Reijseger-Hemingway Trio performs in the context of Patrick Darby's sixth edition of Rencontres de Musique Actuelle, and there are other jazz treasures in the series. Swiss piano wizard Irene Schweizer plays on Thursday night, November 11. Having made a transition from bop to playing inspired by Cecil Taylor and then on to a style all her own, the whole postwar history of piano jazz is literally displayed on her keyboard. She performs with "Madame Contrebasse," Jöelle Léandre, and British jazz vocalist Maggie Nicols. Friday night features Vancouver's Talking Pictures, showcasing four of Canada's most promising young jazz musicians.

Information and tickets at Traquen'Art, 372 Ste-Catherine O, # 115 (396-3388). Tickets can also be purchased at L'Oblique disquaire, Rayon Laser, and Cheap Thrills.

Live Performance Picks - November
-Normand Guilbeault and Marc Villemure. November 3, MDLC Notre-Dame-De-Grace.
-Jazz violinist Mireille Proulx. November 5, Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur.
-New York saxophonist John Nugent. November 11, Upstairs.
-Bernard Primeau Jazz Ensemble. November 11, MDLC Ahuntsic; November 23, MDLC Plateau-Mont-Royal.
-New York guitarist Dawn Thompson and saxophonist John Mckenna. November 12-13, Upstairs.
-1999 Du Maurier Jazz Festival prize winners: Chris Mitchell Quintet. November 19-20, Upstairs.
-German saxophonist and clarinetist Frank Gratkowski. November 27, Automatic Vaudeville.
-Normand Guilbeault, Jean Derome, Tom Walsh and Pierre Tanguay, December 3-4, Upstairs.

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