Makaya McCravenOn Saturday, June 22, I attended drummer/producer/bandleader Makaya McCraven’s concert at Adelaide Hall as part of the 2019 TD Toronto Jazz Festival. It was the sole festival show taking place at Adelaide Hall, also known as RADIO (it’s listed as Adelaide Hall on the TJF brochure, as RADIO on Google Maps, and as both on the venue’s website, although apparently the name was officially changed last year).

Conveniently, I was able to chat with TJF artistic director Josh Grossman, who happened to be standing near me in the audience before the show started. Grossman – who, it should be noted, was sipping a Mill Street beverage, an appropriately on-brand gesture given that the brewery is an official TJF sponsor – informed me that the show was originally meant for the Horseshoe Tavern, but, due to some logistical issues, had to be moved to an alternative venue. A few nights after the McCraven show, the Horseshoe hosted a double bill with Ghost-Note and Rinsethealgorithm; as all three groups play within a certain groove-based tradition, it’s easy to see the spectral framework of a venue-specific series that didn’t quite materialize. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the festival’s first choice for venue, Adelaide Hall has good sound, a relatively open layout with good sightlines, and an atmosphere that lent itself well to McCraven’s music.

I first heard the Chicago-based McCraven relatively recently, on Marquis Hill’s 2017 standards album The Way We Play; I remember being struck by McCraven’s ability to play time with propulsive authority while still remaining open and communicative. (Listen to his brushwork on “My Foolish Heart” for evidence of this, as he brings intensity and weight to the arrangement’s 3/4 groove.) It wasn’t until I did a bit more research on him that I realized the extent of his creative output and the breadth of his artistic practice, which includes playing in more traditional jazz settings with artists such as Hill and guitarist Bobby Broom, performing DJ sets at Turntable Lab NYC, and playing with his own project for Boiler Room London

It was a version of the latter band that played in Toronto. In addition to McCraven on drums, the ensemble included Greg Ward, saxophone; Matt Gold, guitar; Junius Paul, bass; and Greg Spero, keyboards. McCraven and co. played funky, groove-oriented material – music that, though deeply rooted in jazz, had strong elements of hip-hop, rock and other genres. With the exception of some crisply-delivered lyrics, sung by Paul on the Tony Williams composition “There Comes a Time,” it was an instrumental show, with a setlist that seemed specifically organized to keep the energy high throughout the evening. All five band members have chops to spare, but it was in the intelligent, methodically-constructed arcs of tension and release that the group really shone, honouring the compositions by putting the emphasis on groove and group interplay rather than individual feats of musical athleticism. Not that there weren’t thrilling solos (there were!), but the show’s most rewarding moments had more to do with texture and groove.

The last official song of the show – before the encore – was the McCraven original “This Place, That Place,”  a jittery, high-energy piece that features syncopated sixteenth-note shots over an odd-metre vamp. McCraven soloed over the vamp near the end of the tune, and even then, in a moment in which an audience might expect a band-leading drummer to let the notes fly, he played a measured, thoughtful, patient solo that ultimately proved to be one of the highlights of the evening.

An exciting show overall, in an unexpected venue that functioned well as a Toronto Jazz Festival showcase space for beat-driven music. 

The TD Toronto Jazz Festival presented Makaya McCraven on June 22, 2019, at Adelaide Hall, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Adanya Dunn, in the 2017 production of Charlotte. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.On June 1, I had the opportunity to see Theaturtle's Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music at Hart House Theatre. A three-way collaboration between Canadian librettist (and Theaturtle's artistic director) Alon Nashman, British scenographer Pamela Howard and Czech composer Ales Brezina, this was the only performance in Toronto before the company goes on a world tour. Two years ago, an earlier work-in-progress version of Charlotte was presented at the 2017 Luminato Festival before touring abroad for the first time, and I became fascinated by the show and the creative team's innovative approach.

Inspired by the autobiographical series of 700+ gouache painting/collages entitled “Life? Or Theatre?” created by the young German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon in the two years before her death at Auschwitz in 1942, the design of the costumes and props are taken literally from Charlotte's art. They are stylized, colourful, and evocative of a slightly surreal version of Germany and southern France in the 1930s and 40s; surrounding the stage are thin plastic sheets daubed with splashes of paint, meant to evoke the tracing paper with which Charlotte covered her creations. The music and text notes she made as part of her collages inform the libretto and music as much as the drawings inform the physical design, the creators aiming for a complete synchronicity of word, image and music to immerse us in her world.

According to Nashman, the team approached the musical aspect of the project as a singspiel in the Brecht/Weill tradition. “It is neither opera nor musical, even it it contains elements of both,” he explained to me last month. “There are moments of bitterly ironic cabaret, classical music references turned on their heads, some intense vocal experiments and contemporary sound poems.”

The script follows the story depicted in Charlotte's art (although the approach has changed quite a lot since the first time I saw it – more on that shortly). At heart, as the creative team feel, it is a real story that still resonates today, particularly now when people around the world are suffering under a frightening upsurge of far-right politics. Yet it is not so much a story about the rise of Nazism, but a young girl's journey to selfhood and her struggle to understand what is right in a world full of horrors – a girl who chronicled this coming-of-age during the rise of fascism as if she somehow knew that her own time was short. She was only 26 when she died.

What caught me so strongly in the 2017 workshop performances was the depiction of this struggle not to let the horrors, or horrible decisions Charlotte herself has to make, destroy her soul or spirit. I felt that there was still work to be done tightening and strengthening certain parts of the storyline, but this central theme shone through at the end of the play, making it a satisfying, as well as fascinating (although sometimes rather uncomfortable), experience.

Given this reaction to the original work-in-progress, my expectations of the revised version I saw on June 1 were very high. Reaching out before the performance to ask about how much the production might have changed, I learned from Nashman that “the past two years (had) been devoted to a process of refining and deepening.”

Interestingly, my original expectations of where the revisions and changes would happen were very different from where they actually did. One of the things I had liked best in 2017 was the opening sequence: in real time, in the south of France, we meet the parents (father and stepmother) looking for any tangible trace of Charlotte left behind after the end of the war. They are handed a paper-wrapped package which turns out to be the series of over 700 paintings she had created while exiled in France. As her parents start to look through the artwork exclaiming at memories from their past life together, Charlotte herself comes onstage and starts to tell us about the paintings and the people in them. As I wrote in my notes at the time, this opening offered an easy entrance into Charlotte's story – “grabbing our interest in a gentle way then segueing into the storytelling itself. As the story jumped ahead, Charlotte would pop out of the frame now and again, anchoring us and connecting us to each time period and introducing us to anyone new who entered the story.

In the 2019 version this opening is gone, and is replaced by a new prologue for Charlotte alone with her paintings which then leads into the autobiographical story depicted in her artwork. In this new version, rather than occasionally “popping out of the frame,” Charlotte is very much the narrator from beginning to end.

This fits with what Nashman had told me about the revision process. “Watching the video and reflecting on the 2017 productions at Luminato and the World Stage Design Festival, I came to realize that Charlotte had to be kept in the centre of the frame, that her voice needed to be even more present,” he explained. “I worked with dramaturge Ellie Moon, and found ways to bring Charlotte, both as creator and subject of the paintings, into sharper focus.” This he has done – but in moving away from the more naturalistic original opening and the more subtle introduction of Charlotte, something has been lost, and she has become a much less sympathetic character.

I felt the same way about the new ending. In the 2017 version, we realized in theatrical real time along with Charlotte the true horror of her family's history of suicide, and were caught up with her (as I wrote in my notes then) as she is torn apart by the need to decide whether she should  kill her predatory grandfather ‘as one kills an evil rat with poison,’ and as her memories of her lover lead her to choose life and creation instead of death.

In the new version, Charlotte talks about the decision she made, but without sharing the process with us in real time, and so it becomes a less personal moment, and to me felt less uplifting as a consequence.

The tone of the play is altered further by a change in the direction. There is now a more stylized physical acting approach for all the characters, a broader and sometimes over-the-top attack on character creation, particularly when actors are playing secondary parts (there is a lot of doubling), an approach that not all the company seem comfortable with. Thinking about this now, I wonder if the creative team is wanting to move toward a more thoroughly Brechtian approach to telling Charlotte's story: an approach that would use Brecht's famous “alienation effect” to present the story in a less personal or naturalistic style, using instead broader dramatic strokes and shocking juxtapositions to awaken in audiences, as Nashman said he hoped the new version would do, “a greater sense of amazement and loss as the story unfolds.”

The character of Charlotte is presented in a brasher, more modern way, with little vulnerability (though this may be partly due to changes in casting). This could be taken even further. For example, in the new version there is no indication that Charlotte is dead or that she died soon  after completing her series of paintings. Looking back at the opening scene, I would have liked her to say to us, straight out, something like: “I died in Auschwitz when I was 26. Somehow I knew that I had to record my life and hope in my art as quickly as I could.” A clearer differentiation between the narrative bridges and the story sequences throughout would have made both more effective.

Before seeing the new version, I had asked Nashman if he thought that the show was in its final form. His reply: “From everything I have experienced, music theatre demands a much longer development period than a play. There are so many creators, so many moving parts. I suspect that we will continue to tinker, but I would say that we are getting close to the final form.”

I am very curious to see how Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play With Music will continue to evolve as the production visits festivals around Europe and is experienced by different audiences. Will the company go 'all out' in the direction of a very stylized physical presentational performance, or go back and reincorporate some of the best bits of the earlier, more naturalistic storytelling?  Whichever direction they take, this is an important story – and a fascinating theatrical production to experience.

Theaturtle presented Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music, at 2pm on June 1, 2019, at Hart House Theatre, Toronto.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

Luciano Pavarotti. Photo credit: Sacha Gusov, c/o Mongrel Media.One sunny spring Saturday afternoon in the early 1980s, I happened to be walking through Little Italy in Lower Manhattan when I was transfixed by a glorious operatic aria spilling into the street from a nearby store. I had never heard singing more beautiful. The music drew me into its source, an Italian butcher shop. I asked the butcher what he was listening to and he told me it was the Met live broadcast. “Who’s singing?” I wanted to know. “Pavarotti,” he said. As I left the shop to continue my walk, I like to think that the whole neighbourhood was filled with that incredible tenor voice. I had suddenly joined the millions of fans of Luciano Pavarotti.

Pavarotti, the new documentary by celebrated filmmaker Ron Howard, is an engrossing portrait of an outsize personality that focuses on the musical career of a man considered to be the greatest tenor of the last half of the 20th century: a man of great appetites and even greater empathy, whose golden voice carried with it an unsurpassed emotional quotient that resonated with all who heard it.

Howard, working with the same team that produced the dynamic doc, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, had unprecedented access to Pavarotti’s estate: photographs, recordings, video, home movies and interviews, both vintage and newly minted for the film. The movie opens with one of the most astounding clips of all. The year is 1995 and the place is Manaus, Brazil, in the thick of the Amazon jungle. Here, in the little opera house known as Teatro Amazonas, where Caruso himself once sang 100 years before, Pavarotti is seen in his sweatpants accompanied by a piano, pouring forth with total abandon for a handful of passers-by. Flutist Andrea Griminelli – who shot the footage – pointed out that the trip up the Amazon followed a concert for 200,000 people in Buenos Aires.

Much of the rare footage Howard used came directly from the personal collection of Nicoletta Mantovani, Pavarotti’s second wife, the mother of their daughter Alice and head of the Pavarotti Museum in Modena. Mantovani also arranged many of the new interviews, including those with opera stars such as Plácido Domingo and Angela Gheorghiu, as well as Pavarotti’s first wife and their three daughters (all three of them born within four years and seven months of one other), whose insights into his home life add immeasurably to an understanding of this complex artist. His daughter Giuliana, who loved his costumes as a child, once cried out “Papa” when she saw him shot dead in Tosca.

The film contains many nuggets, especially in the first act of Pavarotti’s real-life three-act arc – for instance, that he learned to breathe (“which is the most simple thing but the most difficult”) from Joan Sutherland when they toured Australia together; he saw how firm her diaphragm was before she attacked any note. Other such moments in the film: Gheorghiu pointed out that soprano and baritone voices are natural, but to become a tenor is unnatural, and “you must have the high C.” Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo said, “A tenor voice is constructed, not natural; a great tenor makes it feel natural.” American soprano Carol Vaness: “Luciano’s voice always went straight to my heart – clear, passionate, beautiful, heaven on earth, truly.”

Pavarotti was born in 1935 in Modena, Italy, the son of a baker “and a tenor.” He made his debut in 1961 as Rodolfo in La Bohème; two years later, he performed the role at Covent Garden as a replacement for an ailing Giuseppe Di Stefano. But it was Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, with its nine high Cs, that made him famous. As the film progresses, we learn why he held a white handkerchief and how he was a nervous wreck before every performance at the Met. “I go to die,” he would say.

His second act was centred on the Three Tenors; rock music promoter Harvey Goldsmith adds colourful anecdotes along the way. Nicoletta Mantovani tells us that her husband wanted to be remembered for bringing opera to the masses and that he surely succeeded. By the third act of his life, the Pavarotti and Friends period, he had cemented relationships with the likes of Princess Diana and Bono, was raising money for his children’s charity, and expanding into collaborations with pop stars. By the time of his death in 2007 from pancreatic cancer, the charismatic performer had been seen by more than ten million people and sold more than 100 million albums.

In a film so filled with music that it makes any attempt at cataloguing it an exercise in futility, Pavarotti’s voice reigns supreme, both as a man and as an artist.

Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir. Photo credit: Nikola Dove, c/o A24.By contrast, the two dozen or so snippets of music that are used to punctuate, comment on or simply bridge scenes in Joanna Hogg’s artful, coming-of-age, quasi-autobiographical new British film, The Souvenir, couldn’t be more dissimilar to Pavarotti’s richly mined vein. Set in the early 1980s, The Souvenir tracks a love affair between Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a guileless, well-to-do film student, and Anthony (Tom Burke), a seemingly posh Foreign Service Officer.

Their relationship is swollen with mystery and presented in a series of perfectly composed cinematic postcards, often with painterly care and dialogue that rings true. Swinton Byrne (whose real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, plays her mother in the film) has an appealing naturalism that makes no effort to conceal the emotions her romance often brings to the surface. Burke’s caddish, dissembling character nevertheless does charm his younger lover, pushing her buttons with allusions to the cinematic world of Powell and Pressburger. (“We don’t want to see life played out as is, we want to see life as it is experienced within this soft machine.”)

Most of the music excerpts are contemporaneous, like The Specials’ Ghost Town, Gary Numan’s Metal or The Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way; most take up less than a minute of time. Some, like Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding and Joe Jackson’s Is She Really Going Out with Him?, directly comment on what we’ve just seen. The use of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Verdi’s La forza del destino activate a sense of foreboding that gets our attention. As does Hogg’s carefully calibrated film.

Pavarotti is currently playing at Cineplex Varsity & VIP. The Souvenir is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Alex Fournier. Photo credit: Paul Hillier.Alex Fournier – bassist, composer, bandleader, concert curator – has established, steadily and surely, an important presence in the Toronto creative music scene. You can find him at clubs like The Rex, at which he played, in March of this year, with trumpeter Jim Lewis, drummer Nick Fraser, and famed American saxophonist Tony Malaby; in a variety of groups, both as a co-leader (Money House, Gardening Club, Quartzite Jongleur) and as a sideperson (Colour and Noise, Lake Affect, Bearrah Fawcett, the Dan Pitt Trio, Pineapple); and programming and running his own concert series, Furniture Music, which, as the name implies, began as a series of house concerts (Furniture Music events now tend to take place at The Tranzac, Toronto’s de facto home base for free and improvised music, and Wenona Craft Beer Lodge, a relatively new venue which, in an improbable but happy turn of events, has been hosting a number of creative, musician-curated series). The Rex is also where Fournier will be releasing his sextet’s eponymous debut album, Triio, on June 2. Triio is Fournier’s longest-running project, and has grown organically from a standards ensemble into its current iteration, which, in addition to Fournier’s bass playing and compositions, features Bea Labikova on woodwinds, Aiden Sibley on trombone, Tom Fleming on guitar, Ashley Urquhart on piano and Mark Ballyk on drums. 

Triio begins with ESD, an urgent, pulsing song that functions as an effective example both of Fournier’s compositional style and of his band-leading philosophy. A lengthy solo piano introduction gives way to a snaky melody, which sits atop jittery drums and a doubled bass line; in time, this dissolves into a free improvised section, which ultimately morphs back into the melody at the song’s end.

It is common, in this style of playing, for bandleaders to bring in fairly simple melodies, and to treat the compositions as seasoned jazz musicians would treat a leadsheet in a straightahead setting; that is, as a melodic and harmonic sketch, which they collectively fill in. This is not the approach that Fournier has taken. One of the most striking features of Triio songs like ESD, Noisemaker, and Permanently Hiccups is the specificity that Fournier employs to realize his musical vision; more striking still is that the shifts from composed to improvised material never feel unnatural, but rather like the inevitable consequences of the proceedings. The notable elements of Fournier’s tunes – through-composed forms, textural shifts, tightly orchestrated (and highly technical) melodies – don’t seem to hamper the creativity of the rest of the band as much as inspire it, by providing clear parameters in which a certain kind of musical play can happen. That this all seems to happen readily and unselfconsciously is a testament to Fournier’s musical leadership qualities; it’s easy to imagine that he would be good at teaching someone how to play a board game, or cribbage, or any activity in which the purest expression of play comes from a solid understanding of the rules, and the paradoxical freedom of being bound by those rules. 

Fournier’s developmental path has been somewhat different than that of some of his peers. After graduating from the University of Toronto’s jazz studies program, he did what most young jazz musicians do: established a freelancing career, taught privately, and attended workshops, including the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, and the School for Improvisational Music (SIM), which takes place in New York at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. It was at SIM that Fournier first worked with the American bassist Michael Formanek, whose 2010 ECM album The Rub and Spare Change had been pivotal in Fournier’s compositional and improvisational outlook. As Fournier describes, it was the first time that he saw how all of the musical elements that he loved could fit together: “you can play this composed thing, you can do whatever you want with it, you can continue the momentum, you can abandon it, you can change it, and then the tune comes back in, but it’s not even the same tune that you started, but you can just end it there.”

Fournier got along well with Formanek at SIM, which led to a grad school application to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where Formanek was a faculty member. While most Toronto jazz musicians look to New York for their grad school experience and are more focused on being part of an inspiring scene and an elite cohort, Fournier opted for Baltimore, a smaller city, and Peabody, which is better known for its classical program than for jazz.

The trade-off – working with Formanek – was worth it. Fournier’s experience with Formanek at Peabody was much closer to an intimate mentor/mentee relationship than one commonly finds in jazz programs, even at the graduate level. Beyond productive private lessons, Fournier had the opportunity to guest-lead some of Formanek’s classes, including a big band, small ensemble, and a global improvisation class, which focused on what Fournier describes as “empirical ideas that you can apply to different aspects of your improv.” For Fournier, it was a rare experience: a relationship in which, as he puts it, “you go in as student/mentor, and you come out as friends.” 

Upon returning to Toronto, Fournier jumped back into the scene, working in other people’s bands, helming his own projects, and organizing the aforementioned Furniture Music series. When I suggest that he is becoming a bit of a leader in a particular corner of the local music-making community, however, he’s quick to shift focus onto the musicians who inspire him, “fantastic luminaries” such as “Lina Allemano, Nick Fraser, Andrew Downing, Rob Clutton,” and others who are “able to have their feet in both worlds” – the worlds of free improvised music and more straightahead jazz. (Like many musicians in the field, Fournier doesn’t love using the term “free jazz” to describe certain aspects of what he does; “modular music,” his preferred way of describing his process, is more formally accurate, while still as generically vague as terms like “improvised music,” “creative music,” or, on the classical side, “new music.” Nomenclature is particularly tricky for music focused on exploring the porous boundaries between ideas and styles.)

Triio.Fournier’s curatorial efforts, his respect for the formal and informal mentorship process, and his band-leading all share one key component: a willingness and enthusiasm to make room for others, and to facilitate unique collaborative work. With the release of Triio, Fournier’s work has come full circle: by embracing a generous musical model, he has created a band, album, and performance practice that showcases a wide range of his abilities, all the while honouring his band members and the work of those who have come before him. 

Alex Fournier’s group Triio releases its eponymous debut album at 9:20pm on June 2, at The Rex, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Njo Kong Kie, in I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.On the evening of May 17, I had the opportunity to experience the world premiere of Njo Kong Kie's new one-man show, I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. I had been expecting a show of larger scale, as had been suggested by pre-season publicity last spring when Kong Kie's earlier work Picnic in the Cemetery made its Canadian premiere in the same space (Canadian Stage's Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre). However, this is a good space for intimate shows, as the furthest away you can be as an audience member from the stage is 6 or 7 rows—and I Swallowed A Moon Made of Iron is an even more intimate and personal creation than the earlier piece.

The enigmatic title comes from the source material, which, perhaps counterintuitively, is not of a  whimsical fairy-tale nature but the opposite: a collection of almost 200 poems by factory worker Xu Lizhi, detailing the soul-destroying reality for many young workers on the assembly lines at the giant Foxconn manufacturing plant in southern China, where many of the world's cell phones and other personal electronics are made. 

Although he had started to gain some recognition for his literary gifts, Xu Lizhi jumped to his death on the last day of September 2014, when he had just turned 24. He was not the only worker to take this way out of a life he felt was destroying his humanity, and a group of his friends collected his poems and published them as widely as they could to not only celebrate their friend but to open the eyes of the world to the inhumane working conditions at the plant. 

Journalists around the world reported the story at the time. Apparently conditions at the plant have since improved somewhat—but the poems continue to circulate, and a growing number of theatre artists have been inspired by the simple poetic power of Xu Lizhi's words, creating new works of music, movement, and design to make more of us aware of the human cost of gadgets we take for granted.

This February 2019 at Toronto's Factory Theatre (in a co-presentation by fu-GEN Theatre and the Music Gallery), Remy Siu's Hong Kong Exiles presented Foxconn Frequency No. 3. Taking Xu Lizhi’s poems as a starting point, they created a futuristic theatrical event where three pianists competed in what has been described as a “kind of randomized real-time video game” involving three keyboards connected to computers and 3D printers, with webcams adding live footage of the performers' efforts as they compete. Each performance was different depending on the real-time results of the “game.”

While I didn't have the opportunity to see this show live, I have seen excerpts online and read many accounts of the disconcerting effect on the audience of the (thematically simulated) inhumane pressure placed on the three “worker/competitors” as they attempt to keep up with the demands of the “game.” The performance seems to have been a fascinating recreation of the factory life depicted in the poems, also functioning as a warning to the audience of the human pressures of our product-hungry modern world.

Njo Kong Kie, in I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.Kong Kie's creation is very different. In contrast, it could be seen as almost old-fashioned in its simplicity. Onstage is a grand piano on a highlighted square of floor, with a screen behind the piano on which the poems and various images are projected. A man (Kong Kie) enters and walks around the square marked on the stage, miming what seems to be a feeling of being constricted by his living and working space. After a while he sits down at the piano and begins to play.

There are several interludes in the 60 minutes of this theatrical concert, where Kong Kie performs other passages of mime, some seemingly-literal depictions of claustrophobia, others more symbolic, such as moving an anonymous cube from the floor to the piano, or raising it into the air with a pulley. These passages help to create a contextual world for the poems, feelingly spoken by Kong Kie in their original Chinese while English translations are projected on the screen behind. The performer's voice is rich and moving without being overly dramatic, and the impact of the poem's words is often enhanced by being spoken first before a blank screen, with a translation only being projected afterwards alongside the music.

The great richness of this theatrical concert is the power of the music, which varies from simple melodies to richly dramatic harmonies to clashing jangles, depending on the poem. Where it fell down for me was in the lack of a strong enough dramatic arc for the performance. The suicide to come at the end, I felt, was too clearly foreshadowed at the beginning, and the middle sequence was too often mired in shapeless melancholy.

In spite of this, the show is an intriguing introduction to the poems and world of Xu Lizhi, and a moving personal response to those poems by a musical artist of great experience and power. Kong Kie was for many years the music director for dance company La La La Human Steps, and many of his compositions here have a plasticity and dramatic tangibility that cry out to be interpreted by dancers. In many ways this felt like a first personal draft of something that may, in the future, grow into a larger work of music and theatre.

Njo Kong Kie’s I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron was presented from May 17 to 26 by Canadian Stage, at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre, Toronto.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

Against Nature, by Citadel + Compagnie.In a former Salvation Army building on lower Parliament Street in Toronto, a quiet revolution in music/dance/theatre creation is emerging at the hands of Citadel + Compagnie’s artistic director Laurence Lemieux and resident choreographer James Kudelka.

At the end of May and beginning of June, the company is remounting their Dora-nominated 2016 work Against Nature, based on the decadent 1884 novel of the same name (À Rebours) by Joris-Karl Huysman.

The central character of the story is Jean des Esseintes, a 19th-century aristocrat who has become so disgusted with human society in fin-de-siècle Paris that he exiles himself to a villa in the country to create for himself a perfect world of art and artifice. Against Nature is widely believed to be the novel that poisons the mind of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s famous story The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in James Kudelka’s work we will also see the downward spiral of the hero, des Esseintes (played by baritone Alex Dobson), as he tries to escape nature and mortality with the help of his two servants (played by dancer Laurence Lemieux and baritone Koran Thomas-Smith).

What makes this work unique is its combination of opera, dance, theatre and visual art, and its creation for the specific salon-style performance space of the Citadel, which seats only 60 at a time. The creative team is a powerful mix of award-winning Canadian artists, including  composer James Rolfe (The Overcoat, Beatrice Chancy), librettist Alex Poch Goldin (The Shadow), lighting designer Stephen Rossiter, and projection designer Jeremy Mimnagh. Accompanying the three performers onstage there will also be three musicians performing the score live: pianist Stephen Philcox, violinist Pamela Attariwala, and cellist Carina Reeves.

Leading the creative team as director and choreographer is James Kudelka, perhaps best known here as the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada from 1996 to 2005, and the creator of many large-scale ballets including his own versions of Cinderella, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, as well as many works for companies around the world, including audience favourite The Four Seasons.

Intrigued about the genesis of this project, its experimental nature and scale, I reached out to Kudelka to ask him about what had inspired him to make this change in focus from his earlier work.

James Kudelka. Photo credit: Ian Brown.The WholeNote: What drew you to this initiative, creating not only intimate salon-sized works, but works that cross genre lines to combine ballet/opera/theatre?

James Kudelka: First, let me say that my preferred way to describe these works is music/dance/theatre. I don’t want anyone to think they are seeing a ballet or an opera, but I do want them to think they are seeing a theatrical event. We use singing and dancing, voice and movement—whatever will tell the story best. To call it opera will keep as many people away from it as calling it ballet would.

In brief, I was wanting to do something that used Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth but because of the nature of the story the possibility of it being a full-fledged opera house style ballet for the National Ballet of Canada was remote. There was too much in the novel that couldn’t be danced, mostly to do with debt and money. It went well beyond Balanchine’s saying that there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. This was an unmeetable challenge.

Because I was beginning to work at the Citadel I thought it was a good place to try an experiment, and use a librettist and a composer, and to make a rule that the women in the cast would dance and the singing men would carry the narrative challenges through text, and that the whole thing would be to music. Each of the art forms would be used to what it could do best. The remarkable thing is that though the men in the cast of From the House of Mirth carried the language, one never had the feeling that the women had no voice.

WN: Against Nature is the second part of a trilogy (of which the third part is still to come). Can you tell us about your choice of source materials and why they inspired you? I am intrigued by the contrast between Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, the source of the first part of the trilogy, and Against Nature (À Rebours) by French-Dutch author Joris-Karl Huysman, the source material for the second part and current production.

JK: We had been working very hard to secure the rights to a different second project, that never came about. I went into my library and found Against Nature, which was a fascinating book I had read, but I really wondered if a music/dance/theatre adaptation was possible.

I met with the team—Alex Poch Goldin who had written the libretto for From the House of Mirth, and James Rolfe, a composer whom my agent suggested I meet—after the novel had been presented and read by them, and strangely I got excited enough by the idea of it that it lit a spark in us all. I don’t think any of the three of us went to that meeting with much faith in it until then. It was actually pretty grim.

From the House of Mirth had four female dancers, four male singers and five instrumentalists. For Against Nature I wanted to use a smaller ensemble, in the hopes that it would be less expensive to tour.

WN: Do you know yet what the source material of the third part of the trilogy will be, and how the three pieces will fit together?

JK: Yes, but there is no real connection between the pieces other than that they are all music/dance/theatre works. It is true that they are all late 19th or early 20th century sourced. I don’t have a thematic agenda, though I am the artist I am, and no doubt everything I do has some kind of connective theme because it has to come from a deep place within me to bother with it. As I get older I begin to wonder whether a whole career of creations is really just an exercise in trying to get the one idea you have right.

WN: How did the creative team for this project come together? Had you worked together before?

JK: I keep the librettist; I change composer from project to project. It happens that Alex Dobson (the baritone) and Laurence Lemieux have both been involved in both productions so far. It is not unusual for me to try and work with people I know, but I always try to work with someone I don’t know in each project to keep things stirred up and keep me out there and social, meeting artists from all disciplines and introducing new people to the team I know.

I prefer to work with Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell from Hoax for costume because we are a small organization and though we don’t have a permanent wardrobe department, having the same designers creates continuity from project to project and we can borrow from ourselves. They are also lovely and very flexible people…

WN: You are both choreographer and director of Against Nature. How do you incorporate directing actors and singers into your usual work as a choreographer of dancers? Have you found that your approach has changed between the first and second parts of the trilogy?

JK: I am not the music director of Against Nature, but in terms of basic moving the players around the stage, creating the situations and blocking and staging, motivations of character, props and overseeing all the elements, I am not doing anything differently than I would do or continue to do when I create a ballet for a ballet company. (When I rehearse something like The Nutcracker, my job is really almost solely direction, since the choreography was done before the show opened in 1995 and is still performed.) If there is something on a stage, it has been a choice made by a director, or a choreographer. The title ‘choreographer’ tends to lead one to think only of the dance. As artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada I was in charge of a large repertoire of narrative ballets that I myself did not create and these works do not direct themselves.

There is a confusion in this, because people have seen my two music/dance/theatre pieces and can’t really figure out how they came about. I think it would be more usual for a composer to want to write it before a theatrical production was planned. The truth is that in essence, I have an idea, and I invite a librettist and a composer, and after some discussion of tone and numbers and very basic restrictions (since creativity is best achieved with restrictions), I sit back and wait until everyone has finished their jobs and then I come in and finish the work by directing and choreographing. I basically start the fire and then I have to put it out.

We usually have a series of workshops on the way to the premiere. I think FHoM and AG both had two or three 2- to 3-day workshops which usually ended with a showing to interest patrons and start some conversations about how we are doing. It is then also a chance to invite costume and scenic designers in. We are able to work very holistically at the Citadel, creating the show as it evolves, lighting and projections coming into the space early and over a longer period. We bring lots of props and clothing from home. It is a very lovely process, very natural as the project takes shape. By the time we perform the finished project, it has not gone through the usual franticness of a move to a theatre and a broken projector and an unhelpful union crew. So often in our world the day of the opening is a nightmare and has little to do with the weeks of work it took to get to that day.

WN: Do you find that the intimate performing space changes how you approach directing and choreographing, and do you find that audiences relate differently to these hybrid works—particularly being in such close proximity to the performers?

JK: I do this work because of the intimacy, after so many years of trying to fill a stage in a 3200-seat hall. Not that I can’t do that, but it is exhausting. I think to put the audience itself in the actual room with the performers demands a heightened discipline from all concerned in that room. (If your cell phone goes off during the show you can’t hide in a 60-seat theatre!) To hear the breathing, and the inhalation before a word sung, the rustle of a silk gown six feet away, the sweat flying off a dancer, it just may be this kind of intimacy that is the future of theatre “in a world that’s at its end,” to quote the Master in Against Nature.

Against Nature plays at the Citadel May 22-25, and May 29-June 1 at the Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance, Toronto.

The Ensemble of Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Kopernikus. Photo credit: Darryl Block Photography.Claude Vivier’s opera Kopernikus was revived for six performances this past April by Against the Grain Theatre. The opera unfolds in a series of scenes where Agni, the main character, undertakes a ritualistic journey where she encounters historical mythical beings who accompany her from one world to the next. Through a series of initiations, Agni ultimately reaches her final and purest spirit state—her dematerialisation. The opera pushes operatic boundaries, playing with genre expectations (the traditional duets and arias are notably absent from the score) and destabilizing typical avenues of listening (most of the opera is written in Vivier’s own invented language). Kopernikus is therefore a meditation of sorts, where Vivier invites the listener to follow Agni via tonal colours and emotions rather than typical parameters of form and language.

AtG’s cast (seven singers, seven instrumentalists, and two dancers) brought to life a complex score and deserve every single word of praise bestowed upon them by the critics. Singing Vivier without a score is extremely challenging, and the audience was treated to a display of refined musicianship, especially from the singers.

The complexities of the score, both musical and linguistic, as well as the non-traditional storytelling, have been the focus of many reviews. This ‘postmortem’ expands on these themes by focussing specifically on extramusical elements of the opera: translations, visuals, and the portrayal of Vivier in the media.

In his score, Vivier wrote: “Il n’y a pas à proprement parler d’histoire, mais une suite de scènes...” This has repeatedly been translated, both in press releases and reviews, as “there is no actual story.” ‘À proprement parler’ is a common francophone expression and, in this case, it simply means that Kopernikus is not a story in the traditional sense. Although the narrative is not what opera goers are used to, Agni’s series of initiations is very much a story—it simply evolves in a musical narrative as opposed to a literary narrative.

A second mistranslation relates to the opera’s subtitle, “rituel de mort.” AtG’s press release translated this to ‘ritual for the dead,’ when in fact it should have been translated to ‘ritual of death’. This is not semantics; the difference in meaning is significant. Mistranslations are often inconsequential, innocent mistakes. However, in this case, these mistranslations prevent the audience from fully experiencing the meaning and aura that the composer originally intended.

As for the visual appearance of this production of Kopernikus, it was most likely influenced by the 2000 production of the Dutch National Opera, with the stage transformed by tiered scaffolding and the performers constantly moving around the multilevel set, via ladders and stairs. This, along with the additional cold effect of the scaffolding, stiff choreography and the dark exaggerated makeup, landed the production visually somewhere between a stereotypical image of a sanatorium and the underworld. This, for me, missed the mark: this piece is not about the underworld, it is about the ethereal. And the costumes and choice of setting do not help either—the story gains nothing by being placed in a factory. Vivier was such an intensely spiritual man, the assumption that the opera probably takes place somewhere on the highway to heaven would have served the production better. Perhaps the previously discussed mistranslation—that the story is a ritual for people who are already dead (for the dead) as opposed to for one’s journey towards dematerialisation (ritual of death)—also informed these choices. For the same reasons, they did not work for me.

Moving beyond the production to the core promotional material used by various outlets to promote Kopernikus, my opinion is that it set up a chain of causation that led not only to the perpetuation of the mistranslations referenced above, but also to the dissemination of a misleading portrayal of Vivier himself that interferes with viewing, and perhaps even producing, the opera in its own right. For one, the manner of his death: Claude Vivier was gay, and he was murdered, strangled, in his Paris apartment by a man he picked up in a gay bar. To leave the story here reveals only a partial truth. The complete story is that Vivier was the third victim of a trickster, a man who lured gay men back to their apartments to rob them and kill them. The individual press package given to every audience member at the AtG production (a yellow envelope with a black stamp of Vivier’s date of death) includes a copy of a newspaper clipping found in the most complete account of Vivier’s life to date, a biography by Bob Gilmore, where the author chronicles in detail the sequence of events that led to and followed Vivier’s death.

It is true that Vivier lived openly as a gay man in the ultra-conservative Quebec of the 1970s. In much of the promotional material leading up to productions of his work this is presented as “living hard and fast.” But we would do well to remember that this was a lens that was put on his behaviour at that time by his contemporaries, and also that complete information about Vivier’s death would only have been published in the newspapers many months after his death (there was no social media in 1983) and would not have been assumed to be information essential to an understanding of his work. In adopting that lens as essential pre-information, other aspects of Kopernikus that could have been discussed fell by the wayside: the influence of his musical lineage on his complex score; the origins of the sonic and linguistic environment created in Kopernikus; and that it was the opera that marks the beginning of postmodernism in Quebec’s operatic history.

A more rounded discussion would have provided the audience with a better general understanding of Vivier’s world and a deeper appreciation for the moods of Kopernikus. If the public is to fully understand the importance of this work, those involved in the performance process—from production companies to reviewers—need meticulous research in order to go beyond uncritically rehashing old accounts of Vivier’s life as an explanation of what the opera is about.

All that being said, restagings of Canadian operas are rare, and AtG’s revival of Vivier’s Kopernikus is a brave artistic and financial undertaking that should be celebrated. As I wrote in my preview of the production, with AtG's history of audacious reinterpretation of operas of the classical repertoire, it is a natural fit for them to move towards shaking things up in the unexplored world of Canadian opera (there are over 300 Canadian operas to choose from!). All my misgivings aside, director Joel Ivany's passion for the opera, along with that of the production's stellar musical team give much to hope for: hope that Kopernikus continues down the path of receiving the recognition it deserves; and hope that this leading opera collective will to guide us in towards a new era of (re)discovering our own Canadian works.

Sophie Bisson is a PhD student in musicology at York University and an opera singer who is passionate about Canadian repertoire. Her doctoral research focuses on Canadian opera.

ERIKA NIELSEN shayne gray WEB image bannerCellist Erika Nielsen. Photo credit: Shayne Gray.As a toddler, cellist Erika Nielsen fell in love with the cello after seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform on Sesame Street. Growing up with her talent nurtured by a musician mother and excellent teachers, she seemed headed on the path towards a successful musical career. In fact, Nielsen developed into an accomplished multi-genre musician and teacher, as well as a gifted visual artist and writer, earning diplomas from Queen’s University and the Glenn Gould School.

But Nielsen’s world was shaken to its core some five years ago when, at 27, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1 Disorder, a mental illness formerly known as manic depression. The illness is characterized by alternating moods of euphoric mania and deep depression.

Now she has written her mental health story – clearly and constructively – in a new book, Sound Mind: My Bipolar Journey from Chaos to Composure (Trigger Publishing, UK).

Cover of Nielsen’s book, Sound Mind.To be sure, people with bipolar disorder have plenty of company. The 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, released by Statistics Canada in 2013, revealed that some 1.5% of Canadians aged 15 and older met criteria for the disorder. Historically speaking as well, Nielsen was in the company of several eminent musicians. As Kay Redfield Jamison, a specialist in bipolar disorder, described in an interview with Marc Shulgold in the Los Angeles Times in May 1985, “Berlioz often pondered his ‘disease of isolation’. Hugo Wolf described ‘streams of fire’ running through his veins. Schumann chronicled a seemingly unending series of violent mood swings, noting that ‘if we musicians live so often … on sunny heights, the sadness of reality cuts all the deeper…’ [and] Schumann’s wife, Clara, described a night in which her husband ‘wrote down a melody which, he said, the angels had sung to him. When morning came, the angels transformed themselves into devils and sang horrible music’.” Two weeks later, Schumann threw himself into the Rhine (and survived).

Redfield Jamison, who has herself had bipolar disorder since early adulthood, is Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Co-Director of its Mood Disorders Center. In her Los Angeles Times interview, she called Schumann’s action “an example of a classic stage-three mania.” Based on their own accounts, Berlioz, Wolf, and Schumann all had bipolar disorder, she said. So did the late Otto Klemperer, one of the revered conductors of the 20th century.

The symptoms of this “high-energy disease” seldom vary, according to Jamison. Most people with bipolar disorder, she says, “will alternate between deep lows and exalted highs; an individual will experience delusions, such as hearing voices, and will often sense a fluency of thinking and bursts of creativity; [they] will maintain a strong belief in [themselves] …yet will often find difficulty in activities such as handling money prudently.”

Despite some early signs of fairly serious emotional turmoil during her teens and early twenties, Nielsen’s own bipolar diagnosis came as a total shock to her, she told an audience at the University of Toronto in late March. “I had just married my sweetheart of eight years… and my music career was seven days a week, teaching, auditioning for orchestras, performing with a 25-piece Motown band and recording with a quartet of opera-crossover sopranos… I was feeling more positive and energetic than ever – only to wander into a doctor’s office and gradually over the next few weeks, be told by three psychiatrists that I was suffering from a major mental illness.”

Nielsen learned that those with bipolar disorder suffer from a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes drastic mood changes, from euphoria to crippling depression.

After Nielsen’s diagnosis, the cellist “felt isolated, humiliated, ashamed and alone,” as she told a High Notes Avante audience on April 4 at Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts.   Treating her disorder meant re-learning patterns of sleep, nutrition, and time-management and stress reduction. Her painstaking regimen also involved taking medication to complement revamped daily routines.

Sound Mind confronts the stigma of mental illness head-on, testifying to Nielsen’s courage, compassion and resilience. These qualities are reflected in writing of searing candor and vulnerability. Part memoir, part wellness guide, the book is structured in two parts. The first recounts her life story in the most vivid terms. In the second, she outlines the tools which enabled her to achieve stability on what she has called her “road map to recovery.”

The fearlessness displayed in Sound Mind is aimed at others with bipolar disorder. In fact, helping others learn to deal with mental illness – especially struggling teens and youth – became a prime motivator for Nielsen to write the book.

Though her bipolar disorder affects her every waking and sleeping moment, Nielsen works nonstop to manage it. Today, with treatment, she again feels capable of having the life and career she hoped for. The multi-faceted Nielsen plays the Baroque cello as well as its modern counterpart, teaches at National Music Camp of Canada and in her own studio, and performs with Cor Unum Ensemble, Musicians on the Edge, and Rezonance Baroque Ensemble (with whom she will be touring an all-Handel program at the Early Music America festival at Indiana University in May.)

She also recently performed as part of the Dora Award-nominated ensemble of The Musical Stage Company’s Onegin: The Musical  in Toronto and on tour at The National Arts Centre, Ottawa; tours internationally with Classic Albums Live and Electric Light Orchestra Tribute Band Strange Magic; and has performed with artists as diverse as rapper Kanye West and country music’s Johnny Reid. And she still performs with the 25-piece Toronto Motown band The Big Sound, as she was doing at the time of her diagnosis.

Her vibrant cello playing was in evidence at the two recent events mentioned here, promoting Sound Mind at the University of Toronto and with High Notes Avante in Richmond Hill, where she performed two movements from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for solo cello.

A key insight is Nielsen’s understanding that having bipolar disorder is not what makes her an artist or a creative being. “If anything, I’m more productive, effective and expressive than ever because bipolar is no longer holding me back,” she says. She considers her illness analogous to managing a chronic heart condition or diabetes – and hopes that others will come to see it that way as well.

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

The Toronto Bicycle Music Festival.This week, the Toronto Arts Foundation (in partnership with the Ontario Trillium Foundation) announced the creation of a new online resource for artists and organizers interested in developing creative projects in the city’s green spaces.

The Arts in the Parks Toolkit, available on the Toronto Arts Foundation website and as a PDF, is – in its PDF form – a painstaking 96-page booklet covering the process of mounting artistic projects in Toronto’s parks. The resource is aimed at helping community organizations and municipalities plan their own arts events in parks and urban green spaces.

The project grows out of the Toronto Arts Foundation’s “Arts in the Parks” initiative, which was launched in 2016 to bring free arts events to parks throughout the city each summer. Working with community organizations and artists throughout the GTA, the TAF presents Arts in the Parks as an annual series of artist-produced projects. Last year, the Arts in the Parks series featured 282 events produced by 33 different artists and arts groups, in 36 public spaces across the Toronto area. In the past, these events have included projects by such arts groups as Shadowland Theatre, Kaeja D’Dance, Arts Etobicoke, Feast in the East, and Tune Your Ride Collective’s Toronto Bicycle Music Festival, which connects free concerts in parks throughout the city via group bike rides.

With the publication of this Arts in the Parks Toolkit, the TAF hopes to provide a guide for other artists and community organizers to navigate the processes, often daunting to the uninitiated,  involved when mounting creative projects in public outdoor spaces. The toolkit is also connected with existing resources for community organizing – including the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s Knowledge Centre, an online forum for knowledge-sharing and community-building within the provincial nonprofit sector.

The toolkit includes general reflections on the function of a park within a city, and suggestions on dealing with the practical considerations of outdoor, public and site-specific creative work. Perhaps most useful is the toolkit’s nuts-and-bolts information on the permits, insurance, and various other regulations involved when planning events in local parks, as well as its tips for funding and grant writing – something that might prove especially helpful for those artists considering applying for grants from the Toronto Arts Council.

In the opening pages of the toolkit, Claire Hopkinson, director and CEO of the Toronto Arts Foundation and the Toronto Arts Council, talks about her vision of the city’s parks as spaces for community-building. “We hope [that this toolkit] will add to conversations about the changing role of parks as social and cultural spaces,” she writes, “and serve as a helpful resource for community visionaries to tap into the transformative power of the arts in public spaces.”

Hopkinson ends her comments with a disclaimer – and a call to action. “It’s not a playbook, but a guide to help navigate some of the logistical, financial and artistic considerations involved in producing arts events in parks and other public spaces,” she says. “Make this your own.”

The Arts in the Parks Toolkit is available as a PDF booklet, and as an online resource on the Toronto Arts Foundation website.

Robert Glasper (left) and Herbie Hancock. Photo c/o MIRA FILM.This ambitious music-centric chronicle of the history of Blue Note Records manages to tie the current Blue Note All-Stars – pianist Robert Glasper, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott – to the past by adding vintage Blue Note luminaries Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to the recording session celebrating the 75th anniversary of the label which is the film’s fulcrum. Shorter and Hancock talk about the atmosphere in their early days with Blue Note, where the intention was not to make a hit: “I never got the sense of pressure from them to create in any particular way, other than whatever might come out of me,” Hancock says. “The goal was to allow the music to emerge without being shackled.”

Their conversation leads us back to the groundbreaking musicians who were the foundation of the company’s legacy: Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Miles Davis. None of it would have happened without its soft-spoken, jazz-loving founders who gave the artists complete freedom and encouraged them to compose new music.

Alfred Lion (left) and Hank Mobley. Photo credit: Francis Wolff.Alfred Lion and Francis (Frank) Wolff were German Jews, boyhood friends in Berlin, who fled the Nazis in 1933 for the US and started Blue Note in 1939. We hear a portion of a radio interview in which Lion (born in 1908) remembers hearing jazz for the first time when his mother brought a record home in 1926. “I was very much impressed with what I heard, not knowing it was jazz,” he said with his distinctive German accent.

Wolff said of his first encounter with jazz, also in Berlin: “I couldn’t understand the music. I just liked it.”

Sophie Huber, the documentary’s Swiss-born director, summed it up: “This is a story about people who followed their passion and – against all odds – built a lasting platform for a music they loved, a music that was cathartic, and represented freedom, both to the German-Jewish founders and to the African-American musicians.”

“I don’t think they ever lost the purity and the innocence that came with it,” says legendary producer Don Was, current president of Blue Note.

Key to the story was the joining of Lion and Wolff with recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, a New Jersey optometrist whose home studio was the source of Blue Note’s transparent, balanced sound (“It was my parents’ home, and I was allowed to use the living room to record my jazz music. They allowed me to put a control room window in one of the walls to the living room. And I brought all the equipment in there to record my jazz music.”), and Reid Miles, a classical music-loving commercial designer. Lion’s uncanny A&R instincts, Wolff’s stylish photography (he photographed almost every recording session from the early 1940s to the late 1960s), Van Gelder’s sterling sound quality and Miles’ striking cover artwork plus the inimitable music. The Blue Note catalogue parallels jazz history from hot jazz, boogie-woogie and swing through bebop, hard bop, post-bop, soul jazz, avant-garde and fusion. Another key is the re-affirmation of hip-hop as the natural outgrowth of jazz.

From Monk to Coltrane, Lion, who was close to his artists, encouraged them to write new work. And he had an idea of how the music should sound. The result is a back catalogue that is the source of half the company’s revenue. Blue Note records became the go-to for sampling. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s Ode to Billy Joe is their most-sampled track.

Miles Davis. Photo credit: Francis Wolff.Major components of this treasure trove of a film are Wolff’s vivid photographs, recordings of outtakes, banter between the takes, concert footage of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and others, and old radio interviews with Art Blakey and Coltrane. The musicians voices are paramount.

As Norah Jones puts it: “The reason I love being on this label is because I’ve always felt like I had that freedom – to make my own music and do whatever I want and I don’t feel confined by the restrictions of the jazz genre.”

Alfred Lion couldn’t have put it better.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes plays Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema March 29 to April 7.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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