“Those people who say ‘I can improvise easily’ – they are amateurs.”
-Jean Langlais (1907-1991)
For years the quite excellent Ottawa Jazz Festival has put on a small winter fest which I patronize on occasion*, especially when the occasion features one of my favourite Canadian musicians, Kevin Breit, as it did on February 7th, 2019.
When the mini-fest was announced Kevin was listed as an “artist-in-residence” which meant that in addition to playing his own show on the middle day of the three-day gala he was also set to take part in collaborations with the other artists-in-residence on the first and last night. I hummed and hawed and ultimately decided to buy a ticket to his main show as well as the first collaboration, with the self-agreement that if I was completely blown away by the first jam-session I would then take the plunge and purchase a ticket for the final night as well.
(Spoiler alert: I decided not to buy a ticket for the last collaboration.)
I arrived about fifteen minutes early and found the downstairs lounge of the Nouvelle Scene barren, aside from staff. I spoke with festival director Petr Cancurra and he explained that they were running a bit behind schedule. On a tv monitor hanging from the ceiling I could see pianist Marianne Trudel leading her band through a modern Montreal-jazz sort of set via a live-feed from inside the theatre. She was one of the other artists-in-residence and once her set was through she’d be joining Kevin for the collaboration. As I stood alone in the foyer watching her introduce her final number it occurred to me that the show I was about to see was dramatically undersold. I got my ticket punched and the usher ushed me straight into the studio so I could catch the final minutes of Trudel’s set. When she finished Petr took the stage and invited Trudel’s sparse audience to remain in their seats and stick around for the upcoming collaboration, which was in fact a separately ticketed event.
Yep. Definitely undersold.
When the set started there weren’t more than a dozen people in the room. I wouldn’t be surprised if m’lady and I were the only ones who’d actually paid for tickets.
No matter; out came Ms. Trudel, along with Kevin Breit with his electric guitar and two sax players as well: Michael Blake and Tony Malaby. Marianne took a moment to “prepare” her instrument by wedging some dimes between the piano strings and laying a sheet of paper on top of the low strings, and once she was done they launched into a single forty-minute contemporary improvisation.
Now I don’t want to get all uppity, but as a guy who taught a course in contemporary improvisation at Carleton University for several years I can tell you there’s a lot of strategies a collection of musicians can employ in this situations, and the group in front of me at this show employed none of them. It was unmusical, unconnected, devoid of tonal centre nor any discernible rhythm or groove, and it was almost entirely uninteresting.
I was surprised that Marianne Trudel – as one of the featured artists of the festival – seemed so lacking in ideas. Well, to be fair she had one idea, which was to play a repeated sixteenth-note arpeggio punctuated by a pair of quarter-notes (“dananaNanana-dananaNanana-dananaNanana-D O N K-D O N K”) and she stuck with that idea for the whole set…err…song. The two saxophones proved almost as uninteresting, each playing nearly nonstop and with with virtually no variety at all.
Kevin was the sole spark of interest, but even his most creative ideas were lost on the others, each of whom ignored Breit’s musical nuggets completely and instead kept their heads down, lost in their own little worlds. Eventually Kevin gave up on paying attention to the others too and focussed on coming up with more and more ways to make noises with his guitar that didn’t involve strumming the strings. He rubbed the guitar across his lap, he punched the body, he clicked and clicked again on his overly-blatant pedals, he dropped pocket change onto the strings, and he even ground his very nice watch into the instrument. It was clear he had an axe to grind, and as a result he just clowned around trying to muster some sort of interest from someone.
To be honest, every musician on the stage looked a bit embarrassed to be taking part in something so unprofessional and so un-awesome.
And after way too short (or, in this case, much too long) the four of them managed to share a pocket of silence and with a collective shrug they called it the end. Obviously they had no inclination that some people (well, two, anyway) had purchased tickets specifically for this event, instead treating it like an extra little unrehearsed aftershow.
Which was too bad – it could have been unbelievably good. If only Kevin had three other likeminded musicians to improvise with.
*As opposed to the Ottawa jazzfest’s regular summertime festival, which I never miss. After all, it’s much more pleasant to don shorts and a t-shirt and walk/cycle to a nearby park to enjoy some of the biggest names in jazz in the company of friends and plastic-cupped beers than it is to walk – or more likely drive – through Ottawa’s unpredictable winter streets to some downtown theatre where dark, isolating seats stare down some of Canada’s more accessible and lesser-known artists. But when I do go I’m always reminded that winter jazzfest is generally pretty great too.