Monday 30 April 2018

Marking International Day of Jazz With Mike Downes

WATERLOO Ont., (April 30, 2018) --- I can not let the International Day of Jazz go past without a blog post about Mike Downes and his award-winning CD called Root Structure.

Downes is a bassist, composer, recording artist, college instructor and busy-gigging artist out of Toronto.  He is among the most prominent jazz players in the country. 

Root Structure won Jazz Album of the Year: Solo at the Juno Awards recently.  The Junos are Canada's music awards.  What's important here is the CD, not the award. This collection of original music by Downes is about as close to perfect as it gets. Inventive, lyrical, fresh, fun and spontaneous.

Joining the Toronto-based composer on this CD is Robi Botos on piano, Larnell Lewis of Snarky Puppy fame on drums, and Ted Quinlan on guitar.  All are leading artists on the Canadian jazz scene. All of them teach in Humber College's vaunted jazz program.

"Recording with these guys is like a breeze," says Downes.  "So we did a couple takes of everything.  A lot of the stuff is like first take.  So yeah, it's great, we are very happy with it."

The title track is a duet. Downes on bass and Lewis on drums.  Very catchy and funky.

"It's pretty cool," says Downes.

There is a tribute to Miles Davis' electric era called Miles. It features Quinlan's guitar. In all, there are 10 tracks on the CD, all of the material is primarily written by Downes.

It includes a beautiful jazz arrangement of Chopin's Opus 28 No. 20.

"I have many musical influences and I love the music of Chopin," says Downes.  "And I have always wanted to do this piece. It is a prelude in C Minor. It is such a beautiful piece."

Downes had the great pleasure of performing with the legendary American jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny at Koerner Hall in Toronto.  It was a great night that inspired Downes to compose the track called Flow.

"Yeah, it was very good," says Downes of performing with Metheny.  "And Pat is a hero of mine, and this tune is somewhat inspired by his melodicism."

There is a track called Raven that was inspired by an Edgar Allen Poe's famous poem.

"It's actually not that dark a tune," says Downes.  "It is a very dark poem."

Root Structure was recorded in the Humber College studios in two sessions in August 2016. It was not released until the winter of 2017. The range of the compositions, and the unbridled musicality of the quartet will have you listening to this CD over and over.  Steve Bellamy was the engineer.

"He is so good, it was so easy," says Downes.

Downes plays a 160-year-old bass made in France.  Just before taking the quartet into the studio to record Root Structure, the beautiful instrument started buzzing.

"My  bass had a major buzz going on for like a week before," says Downes.  "I kept bringing it in, trying to get it fixed.  And the day before the recording I got it fixed.  It was totally cool. Then the night before we were going to record it started buzzing again, and I was like: 'Oh my God.'"

He ended up putting a belt around the bass for the studio session.

"It's pretty funny, it worked okay.  It was just ridiculous," says Downes.

The buzzing disappeared after Downes bought a second dehumidifier for his house.

"Basses are crazy, yeah, basses are crazy," says Downes.

If you already listen to Downes music, you will love this CD.  He is a creative and vital composer.  His 2014 CD Ripple Effect, which also won a Juno Award, features a beautiful track called Bell Park, which is on the shores of Ramsey Lake in Sudbury. 

After playing the Sudbury Jazz Festival, Downes walked through the beautiful, lake-side park and was inspired to write this gorgeous tune.  That track joins a pantheon of Canadian jazz tunes inspired by the emotional connections of composers to places.  Think Oscar Peterson's Place St. Henri, or Joe Sealey's Inverness.

If you did not know today was the International Day of Jazz, that's cool. Most people don't.   But know it is a thing, so declared by UNESCO.  This year's ambassador for the day is Herbie Hancock. The official celebration is in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Instead of lamenting what you missed in St. Petersburg, tomorrow, you can buy Root Structure to mark the day, and support a great jazz artist.

I learned about International Jazz Day by reading my weekly newsletter from SmallsLIVE/Mezzrow that Spike Wilner writes.  As usual when it comes to all things jazz, Spike nails it.

"I remember being invited to the concert a few years back when the U.N. when this day was first created.  I found it remarkable that the United Nations would do something like this --- to celebrate our music in this way.  And yet, what could be more appropriate for a unifying vision of the world?  I've said it over and over again --- Jazz is the international music for peace. It is a true 'world' music -- open to everyone with ears that can hear it," writes Spike.

"Hopefully the great message of Jazz --- the beauty and joy and feel of this music can permeate the entire world and bring us together like nothing else.  Happy Jazz Day!" says Spike's newsletter.

Sunday 29 April 2018

Nick Maclean Plays Every Show in Blue Note Composer Series

KITCHENER, Ont. (Sunday, April 29,2018) ---- If his first two CDs are any indication, Nick Maclean is bound for an international career as a leading Canadian jazz artist.

But his Kitchener fans will be able to hear the rising star on keys/synth every Sunday in May for the Blue Note Composer Series at Rhapsody Barrel Bar in Downtown Kitchener.  There are four shows, each explores the compositions of great jazz composers who recorded for Blue Note Records -- Joe Henderson (May 6), Wayne Shorter (May 13), Herbie Hancock (May 20) and Freddie Hubbard (May 27).

Maclean adores Hancock's music.  He recorded four famous Hancock tunes of that era -- Cantaloupe Island, Driftin', One Finger Snap and Tell Me a Bedtime Story -- on his second CD, Rites of Ascension, which was released last October.  This 26-year-old piano player made that music his own.

"Generally speaking this CD is very influenced by Herbie Hancock's 1960s quartet.  The quartet with Freddie Hubbard.  It is basically the rhythm section of Miles Davis' second great quintet," says Maclean.

"It is a fantastic group that explores all kinds of interesting Post-Bop Jazz.  So the main records of the time that we were taking ques from would have been Maiden Voyage, and Empyrean Isles," says Maclean.

"So this record in some ways is meant to be driven by that kind of ethos, but broadened to the modern day," says Maclean.

Maclean's played in Kitchener-Waterloo several times before, and has a growing base of fans here.  He played  The Jazz Room last November, a CD launch for Rites of Ascension.  He played the Boathouse last month with his band Snaggle.  Both shows featured Browman Ali on trumpet.  Brown produces Maclean's recordings at Browntasaurus Records, and the two gig together all the time.

"Any situation where I need keyboards, he is my first call, and we have this deep respect and love," says Brown.  "There is a reason I asked him to do all four shows, and there is a reason I am on stage a lot with him these days."

This year Maclean is doing a solo CD for the Brown's non-profit recording label, with Brown producing. So there should be another CD launch show in the area before too long.

Before that, the Blue Note Composer Series runs every Sunday afternoon in May, 3-6 p.m.

I talked to Nick at length about his last CD, which is kind of a tribute to Herbie Hancock's genius.  If you want to know why Brown has Maclean on all the gigs for the series, just listen to Rites of Ascension.  It is a terrific CD.

The spirit behind those famous Hancock tunes infects the rest of the CD, which includes five more originals from Maclean and one from Brown.

Temptations at the Crossroads is Delta-Blues inspired.  This is Maclean's musical version of the story guitarist Tommy Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a midnight meeting on a dark, rural crossroads in Mississippi.

Temptations is a slow blues in three.

"Previous to writing this tune Brown told me he hated playing tunes in three, and he is not super partial to slow blues.  So here I am thinking: 'Hmmm, I should write a slow blues in three, he'll love that."

The next tune is Goldberg Machine.  It is rhythmically complex and asymetrical.  It is in 6/8 time with a five-bar phrase and the baseline never falls on beat one.

"It is meant to simulate a Goldberg Machine, this is a machine invented by the cartoonist Rube Goldberg, actually cartoonist and engineer Rube Goldberg," says Maclean.

The term became synonymous for unnecessarily complicated contraptions that accomplish every-day tasks. Nation's Unrest: A Tribal Conflict.  This was is inspired by devolution of political discourse into camps of yelling fools.

 "This is one of the fastest tunes on the record, it is actually a blues form though it is disguised," says Maclean. "It took the guys a couple of weeks with the tune to realize it was a blues."

A series of panic attacks struck Maclean in recent years, and inspired him to write the next tune on the recording called Feral Serenity.  It is a slow and lyrical ballad with a lot dense harmony.

"The very first time I had a panic attack I had no idea what was going on, I actually thought I was having a heart attack," says Maclean.

That was the first time.

"But the next couple of times it was a very surreal experience, because there is this part of my mind that is able to observe what is going on and calmly say: 'There is nothing going on, it will pass, it will be fine,'" says Maclean.

"So there is part of my mind that knows that, but meanwhile the rest of my body is just completely losing its shit," says Maclean.

The tune takes the perspective of someone watching Maclean endure a panic attack.

Elasticity of Time and Space takes a standard jazz format and inserts Hip-Hop.

"There are a lot of jazz tunes that start off swing in the A&B sections, and then at the bridge they will go for some kind of straight feel, or vice versa," says Maclean.

"I hadn't heard anyone do swing in the A sections and then jump to Hip-Hop at the bridge," said Maclean. "I wanted to see what that sounds like.  So the melody of the tune feels very much like it is coming from a Blue Note record, then at the bridge it dives into this slow, greasy Hip-hop."

Brown wrote the next tune after reading a biography of the Roman Emperor Nero.  The tune charts Nero's descent into madness.

"And it goes to a bunch of different places.  There's some straight Latin(ish)  things, there is a little bit of swing in the bridge, and then it breaks down into an almost Hip-hop kind of vibe before bringing it back to the original melody," says Maclean.

"There is an excellent quote that I found from Christopher Hitchens talking about radical evil in the breakdown that gives us chills when I hear it," says Maclean.

The next tune is called One.  Maclean was inspired by the Herbie Hancock piece Little One from Empyrean Isles.

"So it follows a very similar structure, a rubato melody, followed by a slow swing in a three solo section," says Maclean.  "I really love that."

Maclean mixed in Hancock's voice at one point in the song where he talks about the positive power of music.  The final piece on the CD is called Tell Me a Bedtime Story.

"We close the album with a Herbie Hancock tune just to tie it all back together," says Maclean.  "This tune has a melancholy feel to it, and actually in the liner notes we dedicate it to Brown's cat, Kiwi3, who sadly passed away while we were making this record."
The quartet Maclean assembled for this CD has Brown on trumpet, Jesse Dietschi on bass and Tyler Goertzen on drums.

It is a huge departure from the first CD Maclean recorded with his other group, Snaggle, which released The Long Slog in 2016, also on Browntasaurus Records.

"Snaggle is very much steeped in groovy, electric, fusion jazz," says Maclean.  "So the Nick Maclean Quartet game me the ability to explore the more Capital J Jazz, hard swinging kind of things."

Maclean swings every Sunday afternoon in May at the Rhapsody Barrel Bar in downtown Kitchener.




Tuesday 24 April 2018

Brownman Ali brings Blue Note Composer Series to Kitchener

KITCHENER, Ontario (April 24, 2018) --- A very special jazz series is coming to Downtown Kitchener next month.

Brownman Ali brings his acclaimed Blue Note Composer Series to this city every Sunday in May.  This will be the first time Brown performs the shows outside Toronto.  Every Sunday in May, 3-6 p.m., at the Rhapsody Barrel Bar.

"That is exciting, for me that is exciting," says Brown, who jumped at the chance to bring this series to Kitchener following the success of his five-show tribute to Miles Davis a year ago in this city.

During the Blue Note Composer Series, Brown leads a quartet that explores the compositions of Joe Henderson (May 6), Wayne Shorter (May 13), Herbie Hancock (May 20) and Freddie Hubbard (May 27).   All recorded albums at Blue Note, one of the most famous labels in jazz music.  Henderson, Shorter, Hancock and Hubbard are among the most influential composers in modern jazz.

From 1955 to 1969, they epitomized the straight--ahead sound coming out of New York City.  For many jazz fans this is what jazz sounds like, period. 

"These are the touchstones for any great jazz musician," says Brown.  "These are the historians and technicians that we all grow up around as professional artists, investigating their music from a performance standpoint is something we all do."

Brown incubated the Blue Note Composer Series at the Trane Studio, which operated out of 964 Bathurst St. in Toronto for nine years.  It closed in 2012, but the series lives on.

"I spent a lot of time investigating how these incredible artists were writing, so composition, and that's what led to the series," says Brown.

Leading four different quartets to cover the compositions of four different jazz giants takes some serious chops.  Brown is up to the challenge.  Hailed by the Village Voice in New York City as Canada's preeminent jazz trumpet, Brown is a musical force of nature. He spent years in New York studying under Randy Brecker after graduating with a degree in physics from the University of Waterloo with a 97 per cent average.

(Yeah, I know. The man is a polymath who reads three books a week.  Inspired by a biography of the Roman Emperor Nero, Brown composed a piece called the Madness of Nero that is on Rites of Ascension, the latest CD from the Nick Maclean Quartet.  But I digress).

Brown won a National Jazz Award, and SOCAN Award for composition. He leads six different bands, and the non-profit label Browntasauras Records.  He's toured with Jay Z, Missy Elliot, Paul Simon and the late GURU of Gangstarr and Jazzmatazz fame. Brown was a featured soloist with GURU for four years.

First up in the Blue Note Composer Series is the music of Joe Henderson.  Brown has a tentative set list that starts with "Blue Bossa" from Henderson's first album released on Blue Note called Page One (1963).

"Every artist has to have a primordial record, and for Joe Henderson, for me, it is Page One," says Brown.  "The sound of his tenor and the way he improvises and stretches over these tunes.  He wrote all of these originals for Page One, and to hear him as a saxophone player over these bananas tunes is one of my most poignant experiences growing up."

Born in Trinidad, Brown was raised in Brampton, the music he listened to back then influences his trumpet playing to this day.

"People ask me all the time: 'You play a lot of notes, more than most trumpet players, where does that come from?' It's because I listened to more saxophonists growing up than I did trumpet players," says Brown.

"When Coltrane plays all that stuff nobody blinks, but a trumpet player plays that many notes they are like: 'Holy crap, that's amazing,'" says Brown.

Anyway, back to the set list for the Henderson show --- Out of the Night, Home Stretch, Step Lightly, Recorda Me, Isotope, Black Narcissist, Serenity, Mojo, Momasita, The Kicker, Punjab and Granted.  The show has two sets --- 75 minutes each.  It is a lot of music to cover in that time, so Brown is not promising to play every composition on the list.

Brown believes it is better to have too much music prepared, rather than run out toward the end. You never know, if the fans are on their feet, clapping and yelling for more, it's always better to be ready with a well rehearsed encore.

"Joe wrote the most in a very small period, like 1962 to 1967, so all these tunes are in that period," says Brown.

Joe Henderson was born in 1937 in Lima, Ohio.  Henderson studied tenor saxophone in Detroit, which remains one of the world's great jazz cities, before moving to New York in 1962.  A year later he released his first album on Blue Note called Page One.  That was followed by Our Thing in 1963, In 'N Out in 1964, Inner Urge in 1965, and Mode for Joe in 1966.  He left Blue Note after Mode for Joe.

Joining Brown on stage for all four shows is the talented jazz pianist and composer Nick Maclean.  Kitchener-Waterloo's Tyler Goertzen is on drums. On bass, is Lauren Falls, who spent years playing the scene in New York City, and is now back in Toronto.

The door opens at 2 p.m., the music starts at 3 p.m. and runs to 6 p.m. Mark the date: Sunday, May 6.  It is a matinee show.  After enjoying an afternoon of great jazz, everyone is home by 7 p.m.