John Beckwith. Photo by Holly Nimmons.On Friday, September 9 there was a celebration of a book, and of a musician, and of a whole string of numbers, including 17 and 95. It took place within the cozy confines of the Canadian Music Centre, in the space of one hour give or take a half on either side. The book is the 17th published by John Beckwith, who doggedly refused to allow recognition of his 95th birthday, since it took place exactly one-half year ago, and who quibbled in good humour over the accuracy of the number 17. “I’m not sure they were all books…” and with utmost comic timing, added “I think some of them were pamphlets.”

The evening was introduced by Beckwith’s friend and vital collaborator, Robin Elliott. The printed program mentioned that opening remarks would be given by Beckwith himself, so one assumed (wrongly as it turned out), that John had asked Robin to take the lead. He sat down and the first of two performances took place. Once the singing stopped, Robin stood to ruefully ask if John would in fact still like to make the remarks he had planned. Which, of course, he then did, coming out with the “pamphlets” zinger along with a few more delightful digs at his own and our expense. “I hope you’ll enjoy reading it…and if not I believe there are some pictures…” We were eating out of his hand. 

Beckwith is modest and self-deprecating, which is no surprise to any who’ve worked with him. He simply won’t give in to age, or inertia, or anything else one might associate with the notion of living well into one’s tenth decade. The book’s lengthy title is Music Annals: Research and Critical Writings by a Canadian Composer 1973-2014. Call it Volume II. (Elliot noted in his remarks that this book follows an earlier collection, underlining that this was only a selection from among many pieces not yet bound together.) Add to that, since the evening naturally included musical performances, he continues to draw up delightful, witty, challenging and profound music for today’s performers.

Read more: John Beckwith, Musician

BOOK2 and CD AME livre et disqueMark Miller
Oneliness The Life and Music of Brian Barley

Éric Normand
L’Atelier de musique expérimentale
(tour de bras)

CREDIT: MARK MILLERThe late 1960s/early 1970s were a tumultuous time for various musical genres with new forms arising, often aligned with social and political foment. These recent works focus intensely on that period in Canada through the related lenses of jazz and improvised music. Mark Miller’s Oneliness: The Life and Music of Brian Barley is a biography of the forward-looking, Toronto-born jazz saxophonist, while L’Atelier de musique expérimentale, assembled by musician-producer Éric Normand, focuses on a performance space for Montreal’s experimental musicians. The works share a vital connection in artist/writer Raymond Gervais, Barley’s Montreal roommate and a founder of L’Atelier de musique expérimentale.

Miller is the essential chronicler of Canadian jazz, the focus of eight of his 13 books, including recent biographies of Claude Ranger and Sonny Greenwich. While those musicians made extended contributions, Brian Barley, who died in 1971 at age 28, was a tragic figure of immense promise. Oneliness (the term comes from the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, an interest of some in Barley’s circle), is alive with the detail that distinguishes Miller’s writing. It’s an evocative tracing of Barley’s Toronto, from his Etobicoke childhood to Royal Conservatory and University of Toronto training to long-lost jazz venues like the First Floor Club, and his time spent in Vancouver and Montreal before his death in a Spadina Avenue rooming house. Barley, a gifted classical clarinet student, singled out for early praise, was increasingly preoccupied with the expressive possibilities of jazz. From membership in the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, Barley advanced to work with the Cleveland and Vancouver orchestras. 

Read more: Two Takes on a Tumultuous Time

Salverson, Julie. Ed. When Words Sing: Seven Canadian Libretti. Playwrights Canada PressSalverson, Julie. Ed.
When Words Sing: Seven Canadian Libretti.
Playwrights Canada Press

When Words Sing: Seven Canadian Libretti, edited by Canadian author Julie Salverson, is the first publication to feature in-depth overviews of Canadian operas via their libretti. Each opera is given a section in which Salverson features the libretto first and foremost while also providing unprecedented access to the artistic craft and creative processes of those most involved with the opera. Interviews with, and essays by, librettists, composers, directors, set, lighting and costume designers, provide the reader with a rich portrait of individual operas as well as a larger view of the Canadian operatic creation process. 

The librettists of When Words Sing, published in the same volume for the first time, are Robert Chafe (Ours / John Estacio), Anna Chatterton (Rocking Horse Winner / Gareth Williams), George Elliott Clarke (Beatrice Chancy / James Rolfe), Marie Clements, (Missing / Brian Current), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Nigredo Hotel / Nic Gotham), Julie Salverson (Shelter /Juliet Palmer), and Royce Vavrek (Dog Days / David T. Little). 

The title of the anthology is a nod to the late R. Murray Schafer’s 1970 book of the same name, and the contributors listed in the table of contents read as a who’s who of contemporary Canadian opera: a foreword by Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan, and an introduction by opera scholars Michael and Linda Hutcheon. With contributions from notable librettists, composers and creative team artists, the opening page of When Words Sing creates high expectations that Salverson and her collaborators thankfully meet.

Read more: Delving into the librettist’s art

65-arrivalsdepartures---new-horizons-in-jazz001Arrivals/Departures – New Horizons in Jazz
Stuart Broomer, Brain Morton & Bill Shoemaker
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
€ 34.50 (includes international shipping)
ISBN: 978-972-31-1493-5 UPC: 9789723114935

Distinguished as much for its scholarship as for the artful, mostly colour photos and illustrations which make it an attractive souvenir, this 240-page volume was published by Lisbon’s annual Jazz em Agosto (JeA) Festival to mark its 30th anniversary of innovative programming. It says a lot about the individuals who program JeA that rather than commissioning a vainglorious rundown of the festival’s greatest hits, they turned to three respected jazz critics to profile 50 of the most important musicians, living or dead, who have performed at the festival.

The three writers are Brian Morton from the United Kingdom, American Bill Shoemaker and Canadian Stuart Broomer, who also writes for The WholeNote. The profiles reflect how universal jazz — or more properly improvised music — has become in the three decades JeA has been in existence. Once exclusively thought of as the United States’ contribution to the music world, only slightly more than half of the profiles are of American improvisers. Additionally the majority of the Yanks are not only better known in Europe than North America, but earn the greater part of their income overseas at festivals like JeA.

Well-written and insightful, the profiles include those of acknowledged trailblazers such as saxophonists Evan Parker and Steve Lacy, drummer Max Roach and pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Cecil Taylor, plus those just establishing a reputation like pianist Craig Taborn, trumpeter Peter Evans and guitarist Mary Halvorson. Offering a wealth of information and craftily outlining the performers’ contributions to jazz history as well as a list of essential recordings, the essays could be a primer for those interested in more exposure to excellent music and musicians not promoted by celebrity-obsessed mass media. Broomer’s essay on American saxophonist John Zorn and Shoemaker’s on French bassist Joëlle Léandre are particularly instructive since they pinpoint the many and varied non-jazz influences that helped create these musicians’ exceptional improvised sounds.

For Canadians however the biggest disappointment is that none of the musicians profiled come from this country, although even Japan and Australia are represented. But of course the omission reflects JeA’s booking policies rather than editorial decisions. Considering that Canadians in greater numbers, including expatriates like New York-based drummer Harris Eisenstadt and pianist Kris Davis as well as homebodies like Vancouver clarinetist François Houle and Montreal reedist François Carrier are making a profound impact on the sort of evolving music JeA supports, that situation could soon be reflected by JeA and perhaps a future volume. 

Toronto’s cultural and architectural landmark turns 30 this year, and is celebrating its birthday with the launch of William Littler and John Terauds’ new book Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait. The authors use the iconic building, once known as the “New Massey Hall,” as a backdrop for the stories of the myriad people who have contributed to its development through the years. From Arthur Erickson’s initial architectural plans, to the 2002 acoustical renovations, to the countless outreach and community programs that the hall hosts today, Littler and Terauds have provided readers with a comprehensive story of the building’s first three decades while maintaining interest amidst the telling of administrative anecdotes – a testament both to the writers’ skill and to the colourful history of the hall itself. Well-researched and beautifully illustrated, the book supplies the community with a refreshing perspective of a much-loved musical landmark.

Read more: A Birthday Portrait for Roy Thomson Hall
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