WATERLOO ON., Oct., 27, 2014 --- Peter Van Huffel brings the sounds of Toronto, New York and Berlin to the The Jazz Room on Friday night, fresh from a gig in the Cornelia Street Cafe in the West Village.
The alto-saxophonist and composer is nearing the end of his most productive year so far, and his show Friday in Waterloo features his band Boom Crane. After releasing three new CDs so far this year on three different European labels, with another due out before long, Van Huffel's is a cosmopolitan sound.
After graduating from the Humber College jazz program in 2001, where he studied under Pat LaBarbera and Don Thompson, Van Huffel headed for New York City. He did a Master's Degree at the Manhattan School of Music, which he followed up with several years of gigging in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Now, he is based out of Berlin, Germany and loves it.
“The jazz scene is amazing," Van Huffel says of Berlin. "It is very different. As far as big jazz cities go I have lived about equal time in Toronto, New York and Berlin, and they each have tremendous offerings, but each one has a different thing to offer."
And Berlin offers up a lot of experimental music, perhaps the strongest experimental scene Van Huffel has yet experienced.
"Most music that I am doing, I know there are some people out there who find it tremendously avant garde some of my stuff, but in Berlin I am pretty much one of the jazzy guys," Van Huffel says in an interview with New City Notes.
Berlin bustles with musical innovation.
"There is a lot of sound improvisation in Berlin, a lot of musicians who are really focused on minimalist improv," Van Huffel says. "There is also a lot of traditional jazz, and more the style that I am playing as well, but it's really a city that if you are willing it can really open your mind I think.”
Van Huffel revels in the German capital's history of free jazz. The only similar scene in North America, he believes, is found in the Chicago where the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music is based. Ken Vandermark's free jazz is comparable to what's coming out of Berlin these days, Van Huffel says.
“Germany is kind of the originating area where all really experiental jazz started to come out of, and there is a great tradition of it, and some really amazing players," Van Huffel says. "I have had the chance to play with the older guys who kind of grew up in that scene.
"It's really fascinating to see how they approach their instruments, how they approach the idea of music, spontaneaity," Van Huffel says. "It is really quite different from playing an improvised solo over a set amount of chord changes in a set form.”
Van Huffel came to Humber College with a head of full of Charlie Parker. He has fond memories of the Toronto school for encouraging students to explore the music and push boundaries.
"I think Humber helped open my mind," Van Huffel says. "Really great teachers there."
The alto-sax player Mark Promane was also a big influence on Van Huffel's musical education at Humber College.
"It was a very broad program, not only swing and be-bop based, but I got to play in a fusion ensemble for a few years, and really try a lot of different kinds of music, tremendously open-minded teachers and fellow students, so it was great," Van Huffel says.
The Manhattan School, he remembers, was much more tradition bound. He made up for that by hitting as many clubs as possible, and hearing the wide array of jazz on offer in New York City.
"Especially once I finished my Master's Degree, I spent another four years living in New York after that, and developed my own band," Van Huffel says. "I got to play with some really amazing people in all different styles related to jazz improvisation. It was quite a mind opening experience.”
He lived in West Harlem at first, 152nd Street and Broadway, and then moved to Brooklyn, living in Park Slope and Propect Heights. Van Huffel played the 55 Bar on Christopher St. and the Cornelia Street Cafe, both in the West Village. He played the Tea Lounge on Union Street in Park Slope, and Barbes at 9th Street. and Sixth Ave, also in Park Slope.
“It is kind of like the local musicians' hang, at least it was when I was there," Van Huffel says of Barbes. "Quite werll-known New Yorkers like Jim Black and Chris Speed, they are performing there, or used to be at least, all the time."
The financial demands of living in the resurgent neighbourhoods of Brooklyn and other opportunities in Europe convinced Van Huffel to leave New York City. He had a Canada Council grant to study composition in Copenhagen. He fell in love and married a French-speaking singer from Brussels, Sophie Tassignon.
He checked out the jazz scenes in Paris and Switzerland, but Berlin stole his mucial heart. New York had become tiring and expensive for Van Huffel.
"I just kind of hit a point where I felt I was teaching, and pardon the term, but busting-my-ass too much, outside of actually being a musician just to survive," Van Huffel says.
By contrast, culture-rich Berlin is the most affordable capital city in Europe.
“Gentrification is definitely taking over so rents and housing prices are creeping up fairly quickly," Van Huffel says of Berlin. "Even in comparison to Toronto, comparison to New York, Paris, anywhere, it is still quite affordable. Especially as far as going out in the evenings, going for a meal, going to see a concert, even buying groceries, things likie that, it is unbelievably cheap compared to other cites.”
The move is proving to be a good one for Van Huffel, who is going through an intensely productive period.
"I have usually been releasing one CD every couple of years, but this year, I have released three now with my main projects and another one is about to come out, all totally different projects," Van Huffel says.
Boom Crane, which plays The Jazz Room this Friday, released a new CD on a Spanish label in June. Van Huffel's other grou;p Gorilla Mask released a CD on a Portuguese label in May. And this past January, the band Van Huffel shares with his wife, House of Mirrors, put out a CD on a German label. Then there is the Berlin Trio called Scrambling X that has a CD coming out on a British label in four to six weeks.
Different cities, different bands, different sounds and a raft of recordings. The Jazz Room audience is in for something outside the mainstreams of contemporary jazz.
"I like people who surprise me and throw new sounds my way," Van Huffel says of his major influences, Charlie Parker, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Tim Burn, John Zorn and Anthony Braxton.