- Written by Henry Ingram
- Category: Remembering
“Darling, there’s a market for everything!” Whether in reference to an obscure Massenet opera or his specially designed outfits from Northbound Leather, Stuart more than proved the point during his 87 years on planet Earth.
Hello Bohème! was my official introduction to Stuart Hamilton. I had of course heard of him but had never experienced the force of his personality firsthand. Stuart had dreamed up a potted version of the Puccini masterpiece for Theatre in the Dell, one of Toronto’s then-flourishing cabaret hotspots. We’re talking 1973, dimly lit second-floor rooms, cheap wine and suspect Italian food. Roxolana Roslak and Michael Burgess and Lynn Blaser and Avo Kittask were the two pairs of lovers. The remainder of the cast was me…filling in for the chorus, sugar daddy Alcindoro, Parpignol and the children’s chorus. Stuart, though, was the big star. He had been hailed as a comedian and pianist in Beyond the Fringe and his name is what drew in the crowds. Night after night for over five months, he’d sit at the rickety old spinet playing a tune or two from La Bohème, the phone on the piano would ring and he’d answer with a lilting “Hello… Bohème… you’re going to see Bohème? Darling, you’ll love it…!” And away we’d go on his guided tour through the life and death of poor doomed Mimi. Who knows…the surprisingly robust market for Hello Bohème! may have planted the seed for his big idea.
And that was Opera in Concert.
Stuart believed passionately in the wealth of talent to be found right here in Toronto and despaired that so many fine young singers felt they had to go to New York or Europe to get ahead. His other passion was French opera. So, why not a concert series showcasing rarely heard French opera performed by rarely heard Canadian singers? That first season (1974/75), Thomas’ Hamlet, Massenet’s Thaïs and Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict hit the boards of the Jane Mallett Theatre and the rest is history. What history does not reveal is that Stuart coached all the singers for free and never took a salary as founder, artistic director and pianist for Opera in Concert. As it turned out, the market for less familiar operatic fare – French and not-so-French! - was significant and soon enough the series was expanded to four operas, some performed with orchestra.
My partner Guillermo (Bill) Silva-Marin and I were in that first OIC season; Bill was Hamlet and I was Marcellus, the guy who sees the ghost and disappears never to be heard from again. The full story can be found in Stuart’s memoir, Opening Windows: Confessions of a Canadian Vocal Coach. Over the years, Bill and I appeared for Opera in Concert numerous times and Stuart became a valued coach, mentor and, most importantly, a great friend.
Stuart was born in Regina at the dawn of the Great Depression, third son of a lawyer and his North Dakota-born wife, and brother to two sisters, Dorothy and Patricia. His first brush with fame came in 1939 when he was greatly applauded for his skating routine, performed to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. The ten-year-old’s performance was notable for remarkable spins and his bumblebee costume. Growing up, the prairie boy practised piano, joined the high school drama club and listened fanatically to the Met’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera broadcast. By 1947, the call of neon and concrete had become too great and he moved to Toronto to seek his fortune. During his salad days, he was an usher at the Eaton Auditorium, conducted Broadway shows in Buffalo, gave recitals in New York and London, taught at the Hamilton Conservatory, toured with Lois Marshall and Maureen Forrester and occasionally conducted for June Kowalchuk’s early version of Opera Hamilton.
The piano was Stuart’s principal means of musical expression and he maintained a fractious relationship with those 88 keys right up until the end. His forte was French high romanticism and composers such as Mozart and Bach rather intimidated him. Nevertheless and because “Darling, I’ll do anything to make a buck,” he and a trio of his singer friends turned up on the Brunch with Bach series at Harbourfront. To his great surprise, The Globe and Mail critic praised his Bach style in lavish fashion and gave everybody a good review. Stuart’s response was something on the order of “What does he know, I left out half the notes!”
Never anybody’s idea of a homebody, Stuart was a great traveller and he did not stay in dumps. “Leave me alone, I’m a rich millionaire” is another of the lines his close friends remember, a zinger he’d deliver whenever anyone questioned his fondness for the George V in Paris or invite buddies to dinner at La Tour d’Argent. During one memorable trip to San Juan, he checked into and out of three first rate hotels: El Convento, Normandie and the renowned Condado Beach Hotel. The Condado was particularly trying because each night he was serenaded by a choir of Puerto Rican frogs…coquis. They are thumb-sized little buggers, but Pavarotti had nothing on them when it came to volume. According to Stuart their cry was a piercing minor ninth (co-QUI) and it drove him mad!
Looking back at his multi-faceted career, one wonders how he found time to do it all and still keep up his daily coaching schedule, which over the years included a who’s who of Canada’s vocal elite…and some of the rest of us! Quizmaster of CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera from 1982 till 2007, he also appeared regularly as a panelist, and occasional guest quizmaster, on the Met’s broadcasts from Lincoln Center. He was the first music director of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, an in-demand lecturer and adjudicator for competitions such as the George London and Sullivan Foundation Awards, Mexico’s Oralia Dominguez Competition, the CBC Young Performers’ Competition and Bathroom Divas, while in his later years, countless young singers benefitted from his wise counsel as a recital adjudicator for the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Stuart was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 1984, won the Toronto Arts Award in 1989, received the Governor General’s Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Confederation in 1992, the first Ruby Award from Opera Canada in 2000 and the Beckmesser Award from the Los Angeles Opera in 2004. Dalhousie University awarded him an honourary doctorate in 2008 and he received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.
My last memories of Stuartissimo, as so many of us called him, were positive ones. Even though he became increasingly fragile due to the effects of prostate cancer, he was alert and energized when the subject was opera. I went over one Saturday afternoon last December and he wouldn’t be interrupted…Manon Lescaut was on. After the opera, he made some incisive comments about the development of Puccini’s genius, from the boyish Le Villi through to Manon Lescaut and the triumph of La Bohème; then he let me know that it was naptime. A couple of days later, Bill and I were invited for Christmas dinner, which he himself was determined to cook! This turned into a hilarious and somewhat chaotic affair featuring turkey, mashed potatoes and rutabagas; Dorothy later told me that they forgot to serve the coleslaw and Apple Betty.
And now he is gone.
Much will be written, many stories will be told and we will all cherish the memory of a man whose life was dedicated to music.
A Memorial for Stuart Hamilton will be held at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on Sunday,March 5, 2017 at 3pm. Admission is free. Please call the St. Lawrence Centre Box Office at 416-366-7723 to reserve a seat. Those wishing to honour Stuart’s memory are invited to make a contribution to the Stuart Hamilton Memorial Fund for Emerging Artists.
Henry Ingram, a reformed tenor, is Managing Director of Dean Artists Management and Director of the Concerts Division.
- Written by Wendalyn Bartley
- Category: Remembering
“In hearing, the ears take in all the sound waves and particles and deliver them to the audio cortex where the listening takes place. We cannot turn off our ears – the ears are always taking in sound information – but we can turn off our listening. I feel that listening is the basis of creativity and culture. How you’re listening is how you develop a culture and how a community of people listens is what creates their culture.”
– Pauline Oliveros, from an interview with Alan Baker, American Public Media (2003)
I first experienced American composer, electronic music pioneer and Deep Listener extraordinaire Pauline Oliveros at a concert she gave at the original Music Gallery sometime in the late 1970s. What I experienced was a revolution in the making that I had difficulty making sense of at the time. I had heard about Oliveros, in part through interviews with her in Musicworks magazine and also in Casey Sokol’s improvisation class at York University. I was anticipating a usual event – an audience sit-down-in-your-chair-and-be-quiet experience. But no, that’s definitely not what happened. The first piece, Tuning Meditation, was created by everyone lying on the floor with our heads in the centre, following these simple instructions: On breath one, make a tone that you are hearing inside yourself. On breath two, match a tone you are hearing in the room. Repeat this sequence until the ending occurs. No doubt many of you reading this have also participated in this piece as it is one of her most well-known and loved Sonic Meditations. It is a way of cultivating listening presence and awareness, both focal and global.
The second piece on the program was Extreme Slow Walk. The task was to listen while walking extremely slowly. I remember Pauline teaching us how to walk – to pay attention to each and every micro movement required just to take a step. The group walked in a circle for at least 40 minutes and, if my memory is correct, we only made one rotation around the room. However, it is what I experienced during that walk that has stayed with me all these years. At one point, it was as if a veil had been lifted and something inside of me expanded. The tension in my body dropped away. And despite the fact that my mind was questioning whether or not this was really a proper concert, the experience itself communicated the truth that something more profound was occurring at another level within me.
In the vast outpouring of tributes on social media in these last few days after Pauline’s passing, it was this quote from 1975 that spoke to my experience. When asked about the musical idea for Rose Mountain Slow Runner, Pauline said: “Well I haven’t been working with musical ideas for a while, but I’ve been working on my consciousness, on my mode of consciousness, and the result of the mode is the music.”
And that is indeed what has evolved throughout her career. She has created a legacy that has profoundly altered the awareness and musical practices of so many people worldwide. For myself as a young student at the time of that initial encounter, it began a process of questioning the way things are defined in music. And as I look back on the many experiences I have had with her over the years, each one of these memories marks a significant moment of learning, of expanding and of questioning assumptions. This is the gift of the expanded listening process she has brought to the world. I return again to her definition of Deep Listening: “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.”
In closing, I would like to recount two short stories from my own personal encounters with Pauline. The first took place during one of her visits to Toronto, sometime in the 1990s. With a small group in a forest close to Gayle Young’s home in Grimsby, Pauline led us in a few different approaches to vocal soundmaking. After we concluded, she said: “It’s really important for the trees that we do this, that we communicate with them.” The second incident took place close to her home in Kingston, NY. I was visiting her and wanted to go on an excursion to a local cave to do some soundmaking. Before we even got to the cave, her instructions were to start listening as we walked along the path, to become aware of all the other beings living in the fields and skies above, to listen to their presence and become as non-disruptive as possible. We continued in this mode after arriving at the cave, and only towards the end of our stay did we add our own soundmaking as participants in the larger field of sound around us.
Her gift to the world is so vast that it is almost impossible to sum it up in words. She affected and influenced so many because she herself treated each encounter as an opportunity to witness and be fully present.
- Written by Michele Jacot
- Category: Remembering
It was my incredible fortune to be introduced to Howard Cable through a member of the Wychwood Clarinet Choir (that I conduct), who had been at a gathering with Howard and had asked him, as a lark, if he had ever written anything for clarinet choir.
Sure enough, he had, and for none other than the particularly talented clarinet section of the 184-piece North American Aerospace Defense Command (“NORAD”) Band, based in Colorado Springs. Howard guest-conducted, composed and arranged for the NORAD Band from 1960 to 1966. He wrote several selections for their clarinetists, most of which were never published. Luckily for us, two were. One, an arrangement of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered from Pal Joey (Rodgers & Hart), Howard hadn’t heard played since 1962, and the other, Wind Song, an original composition, he had in fact never heard performed (though we’re not exactly sure why).
Howard quickly located the two published pieces and passed the music along to us. We invited him to conduct both pieces at our next concert and, to our delight, he accepted. I took the group through the songs for most of the rehearsal process and we arranged for Howard to be there the week of the show to take the reins.
There for the night! The night arrived. An intricate plan was in place for Howard to start out the rehearsal and to be driven home as soon as his pieces were done so that he didn’t have to sit there for two and a half hours on a hard church pew. I introduced myself and shook Howard’s hand. Of course, I had revered this legendary Canadian for years, but had not yet had the chance to meet him. I was a little nervous (slight understatement). Here I was, a strange new face, with 17 clarinetists in tow, about to play Howard Cable’s music for none other than the man himself. Even now, that night seems surreal. I took the group through our usual warm-up and invited Howard to the podium. Howard was on form (which I would later learn was how he always was). In no time, he had the notes weaving and whirling about with the group watching his every move, even from the low chair he sat in to conduct. He rehearsed for a while, but not too long, and then went back to the pew. “We’re ready to take you home now, Howard,” I said. “Oh no,” he replied. “I’m here for the night!”
After the colour returned to my face, I managed to muster up a faint smile and scurry off to put my own clarinet together. Next up on the rehearsal list was my solo feature for that concert, Clarinet on the Town, by Ralph Hermann, which would be led by our associate conductor, stellar arranger (and my former high school teacher) Roy Greaves. Luckily for me, I didn’t know about Howard’s new plan until that moment, so I didn’t really have time to get (any more) nervous. That particular solo had a lot of notes. “Well, here goes nothing,” I thought to myself.
After that, came another test. It was my turn to conduct, and I’d be up there for the remainder of rehearsal. It was hard to concentrate at times, when I could hear Howard’s cane tapping the beat behind me. Was the group not together, or was he just grooving along?
At the end of rehearsal, I told Howard (once again) that we were ready to take him home. Thinking he would most certainly decline, I also told him that a bunch of us would be immediately proceeding to our local post-rehearsal watering hole, and that he was welcome to join us. To our shock, he enthusiastically accepted. He came with us, drank (a lot of) black coffee and regaled us with all kinds of stories, from his time as the artistic director of the Royal York’s Imperial Room, to his summers in Charlottetown and his days at the CBC.
Choir musicians gradually started fading out, but not Howard. He and the few of us who remained were (politely) asked to leave by the server as chairs were going up on tables for closing time. That night was the only time we’ve ever shut down the bar after rehearsal. Usually it’s a half pint all-round with one side order of fries (we’re wild kids). We’re in and out in an hour. That night, I later discovered, was not an isolated incident of Howard closing down a bar. That night was also my introduction to a wonderful human being and a true kindred spirit.
One-trick pony: He didn’t say too much about the rehearsal that evening, and I was worried the entire time that he thought we were just a silly bunch of clarinet geeks. The next morning (a bit early, I might add, after our late night partying) the phone rang. It was Howard, calling with praises for the work I had done with the group the night before and also about my playing. “That piece is a one-trick pony,” he said. “You need another trick!” The following week at our Christie Gardens retirement home pre-show show, he arrived with a manila envelope. In six days, he had whipped up a brand new piece, dedicated to the Wychwood Clarinet Choir, with a solo part for me. We were all floored – and honoured. Figuring this was my “other trick,” we immediately programmed the piece for our next concert, but the music kept coming. A second number, which at first we assumed was a separate piece, was in fact a movement to follow the first one he had given us. We were overjoyed. We didn’t realize at the time that we were going to end up with a three-movement work titled the Wychwood Suite for solo clarinet and clarinet choir.
The following season, even more music came. Howard wrote for and conducted at several subsequent concerts, one of the highlights being a show featuring Howard’s young discovery, crooner Michael Vanhevel. The concert was a huge success, and included the likes of Terry Clark and Kieran Overs as our rhythm section.
Since then, the WCC has been so fortunate to befriend not only Howard, but also Howard’s wonderful friends and family. Virtuoso trumpeter, conductor and arranger Bobby Herriot, and Fen Watkin, fantastic pianist and arranger, were colleagues and dear friends of Howard’s for decades. Due I’m sure to Howard’s initial convincing, the two have come to several of our concerts and have since been writing for our group. Bobby and Fen are now a special part of our WCC family. In fact, huge thanks to Bobby for helping with setting some facts straight for the historical accuracy of this article, and for regaling me with lots of funny, fascinating stories (some not suitable for print) of the antics, poignant moments and memories that Howard and Bobby shared.
On the road: Howard also helped behind the scenes to plan and imagine, with ideas for themed shows and other exciting projects both for the choir and for myself. He proudly became the WCC’s composer and conductor laureate, but mostly, he was our friend.
He would phone me after concerts to debrief. “It’s the maestro calling,” he would say. He would get frustrated if I didn’t answer right away and would call back incessantly until I did. One day, he told me how impressed he was with the work I was doing for the group and how far we had come in even the short time he had been with us. He explained that travelling and conducting were getting a bit more challenging for him, and that he wanted me to tag along … to learn from him, to get some orchestral conducting experience, and also to be there “in case”. “Sure!” I said (after pretending to think about it for a second or two), and thus began my new adventure as Howard’s associate conductor. He insisted on the word “associate” as opposed to the word “assistant,” with a long explanation having to do with the association (pardon the pun) it conjured up. He was a bit of a semantics guy and, when I knew him at least, quite firmly opinionated. He also saw through egos and was one of the most unpretentious people I have ever met. He couldn’t stand narcissists. I loved this about him, as we shared these strong sentiments. I asked him once why he didn’t use his “Doctor” title. “Too snobby,” he said, without missing a beat.
In February of 2015, 94-year-old Howard and I flew to Halifax to conduct his “Music of the Oscars” show with Symphony Nova Scotia. After a lovely visit on the plane where we discussed music, of course, and many other fascinating topics, we checked into the hotel. Later, we met up for dinner. Howard had his preferred Lord Nelson specialty, chicken pot pie. As we chatted over coffee and dessert (banoffee cake, another of Howard’s favourites), Jim Eager, the symphony’s music librarian and trombonist, dropped by to bring Howard his scores for the show. Since they were all his own arrangements, he apparently didn’t need them too far in advance!
Made of horseshoes: After our meal, I took Howard back to his room and went to unpack my suitcase. He asked me to check in on him before he went to sleep, so at about 11pm I knocked on his door, as requested. “Come in,” was the very faint reply. To my utter horror, I opened the door to find Howard lying crumpled on the floor. He had fallen on his way out of the bathroom and had been there for over two hours, unable to get up, let alone get to a phone. I tried to lift him off the floor on my own, but no luck, so I called the front desk for help. After we propped him up in a chair, I asked him what was hurting, and thankfully in many ways, he said he thought that only his left hand had been affected. (I later told him he was made entirely of horseshoes!) The hand was pretty swollen, though, so we got him some ice. I asked if he wanted to go to the hospital and he quickly replied, very definitively, “Not a chance!” He sat for a few minutes in silence, visibly thinking things through. (It felt like forever!) Then, looking at me with an intense stare (and somehow a twinkle in his eye at the same time), he proclaimed, “I think you’d better conduct the whole show.”
For previous concerts, I had been given a full set of scores in advance, “just in case,” but for this particular occasion, the scores were in Halifax, so I only had the three numbers I was originally scheduled to conduct. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, he quickly sent me away with the rest of the pile (there were nine other pieces) and I stayed up all night trying to absorb as much as humanly possible before the 10am rehearsal downbeat. (I also silently checked on him again at 3:30am to make sure he was okay, and he was happily snoring in his chair). To add to the score crash-course fun, many of the numbers were piano reductions so I didn’t have a lot to go on, and some were hand-written in Howard’s infamous chicken scratch – even with empty bars! Only Howard knew what filled them, and I had to find out as we went along. In case you aren’t familiar with Howard’s writing style, he is the king of key changes and a huge fan of long (and expertly crafted, I might add) medleys, with ones for this particular show often containing six and seven tunes each. And for every tune, a transition, which are tricky moments for conductors to navigate even when there is actually time to prepare.
The next morning, at the insistence of the orchestra’s administrative staff, Howard was taken to the hospital, his hand X-rayed (he had broken some bones) and put into a cast. When I came back to the hotel after the two-service day, he slowly looked up from his newspaper, put down his coffee cup, asked what took me so long (as if he had casually been lounging around all day) and eagerly awaited my report. I filled him in and he told me how proud of me he was for agreeing to take on this challenge. He added that he had already heard positive reports about the day from several people. I was relieved … and exhausted.
Unstoppable! By the end of the dress rehearsal the next day, things were sounding pretty decent. It was a blessing, of course, that the musicians of Symphony Nova Scotia are absolutely incredible. Howard ended up emceeing the show from his wheelchair beside me, which meant that the audience was still able to hear his wonderful tales and anecdotes – a huge part of why many have flocked to Howard’s shows over the years. And good news for me, I got two cracks at it, with a second show two days later – so after the complete out-of-body experience of the first one, I was able to be a lot more relaxed and present the second time around. Luckily, both shows ended up going off without a hitch, and the memory of turning around to bow after the Over the Rainbow encore, seeing Howard with tears streaming down his face, is one that will be deeply etched in my mind for the rest of my days. Of course, I lost it too, at that point, and we hugged each other for a long time as we bowed. I have never had a more stressful or a more exhilarating musical experience. What a ride.
And what a thrilling trip it was to be able to know Howard in his last years. He had a youthful spirit and a sparkle in his eye that kept him young at heart until the day he died (I was so fortunate to be able to have dinner with him two days before he passed away). Howard Cable touched a lot of souls. His cheeky and contagious smile was usually enough to win you over, and when music was thrown into the equation, Howard Cable was absolutely unstoppable.
- Written by Andrew Timar
- Category: Remembering
As I write this, Robin Engelman’s website is filling up with dozens of tributes, both moving and humorous, from around the world. CBC Radio broadcaster Tom Allen, on his show Shift, eulogized Robin for his “voracious love of life and pursuit of knowledge,” for his “integrity and passion for getting things right.”
Percussionist, music teacher, composer, oenophile and amateur golfer Robin Engelman had an active musical career ranging over half a century conducted at the highest artistic level, so perspectives on his life and work will be many, varied and likely, as often as not, focused as much on the individuals he influenced as on Robin himself. He enlivened many lives, mine included. Here is my take on it.
His musical path began in the US, but his distinguished contribution to Toronto’s musical life was wide and deep. As a percussionist he had extended engagements with our symphony orchestra under the eminent conductors Seiji Ozawa and Karel Ančerl, our opera company, and for more than 15 years with New Music Concerts. It was, however, his nearly four decades performing with Nexus that most keenly defined his career as a musician.
Being an avid Toronto concertgoer and an active contemporary music student, then musician and composer, I witnessed and savoured Robin’s work in each of his roles from the 1960s on. Witnessing him among his varied colleagues in the act of musicking proved to be defining musical moments, keys of inspiration. They helped to unlock the doors of my own musical journey.
He was also a passionately critical teacher and musical mentor to generations of percussionists. Though I was never formally his student, our paths first crossed at York University in the early 1970s. I was already an undergrad there, focused on the bassoon, composition and ethnomusicology, when Robin made his presence known, and felt, as an instructor of percussion there. His studio at Founders College, chock-a-block with orchestral and non-Western percussion instruments, was heady turf for young musical keeners like me.
In this early 1970s photo, Engelman is playing the standard drum practice pad with an intense musical focus, not on his instrument his hands or thoughts, but rather on his musical partner of the moment. With drumsticks in hand, he’s tackling “Three Camps” (according to his own caption to the photo) with his illustrious York University colleague, my teacher and later fellow performer, Trichy Sankaran, here playing the kanjira. They’re surrounded by the tools of Robin’s trade. Looking closer, we see they’re poised like two dancers, the tension and excitement of their musical dialogue palpable in their body language and gaze.
With minimalism in the York air – and Nexus right in the thick of it (more on that later) – I started a student percussion-centric group which made its own music cheekily tagged R[hythm] Pals. Robin encouraged me and permitted us to rehearse at his studio. He also generously allowed us to use his instruments, including the kulintang, a gongchime from the Southern Philippines, which I played extensively in the ensemble in concerts at York, A Space, The Music Gallery and at the University of Western Ontario, London. That kulintang, the gong ensemble in which it is featured, R-Pals, as well as the numerous performances of Nexus I attended at the time, were all determining factors in setting the tone for my lifelong taste for the sounds of percussion, and more specifically, gong ensembles.
That specific sonic taste for gongs has morphed into a career-long deep and abiding affection, exemplified most enduringly in my 33 years with Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, Canada’s pioneering ensemble of its kind. Robin had, over the decades, attended a number of ECCG concerts, partly because he was genuinely passionate about avant-garde music, but in large part I think, in order to support – and sometimes challenge – the local community of percussionists, many of whom considered him a mentor. As more of his former University of Toronto students began to perform with the group, Robin made it a point to see what we were doing. In 2014, he even published his review of an ECCG concert on his website. Following a lifelong practice of telling it as he saw and heard it, he pulled no punches!
On April 14, Soundstreams will present “Steve Reich at 80,” in celebration of one of the shakers of musical minimalism, and as I had alluded to earlier, there’s a Robin and Nexus connection here too. Nexus co-founders Russell Hartenberger and Bob Becker were both also original members of the seminal Steve Reich and Musicians, formed in 1966. Then, when Nexus was born in 1971 in Toronto, Robin was on board as a charter member. During their many extensive residencies, national and international tours, Robin was there (installments of his tour diaries can be read on the Nexus website). And Reich’s music was often on the program. His minimalist masterwork, Music for Pieces of Wood, videoed in a 1984 Tokyo concert, has surpassed 242,000 YouTube views.
Returning once more to that evocative early 1970s photo of Sankaran and Robin, to me it captures a key feature of that era’s York University music scene and Robin’s place in it. In retrospect, the place was at the beating heart of a kind of transcultural music making, and for a few (trans)formative years I was privileged to be part of it. I’ve spent a career since exploring several such musical broader crossings and meetings. That photo reminds us that Robin’s York studio was one of its early touchstones, while his continuing friendship was yet another. He is already missed by many.
The WholeNote’s regular world music columnist, Andrew Timar, is a Toronto musician and music writer.
- Written by Ken Waxman
- Category: Remembering
Paul Bley who died at 83 in early January was probably never bothered that he was usually described as Canada’s second-best-known jazz pianist; Oscar Peterson was the first. But Bley, who shared a Montreal birth with Peterson, and who similarly was honoured with induction into the Order of Canada in 2008 – albeit 30-plus years after Peterson – was for all intents and purposes a much more radical pianist than O.P.
Peterson, seven years Bley’s senior, was a flamboyant stylist who adapted Art Tatum’s all-encompassing swing era techniques to the structure of modern jazz during an almost incalculable number of performances from the late 1940s until his death in 2007. However Bley, represented on more than 100 discs during his career, cycled through a variety of keyboard strategies from the outgoing to the cerebral, eventually matching the atonality of off-centre techniques with straightforward, melodically measured motion. He was also one of the first serious improvisers to deal with the sonic possibilities that could be extracted from the then brand-new portable Moog synthesizer. Later, such better-known pianists as Keith Jarrett, The Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson and Satoko Fujii developed their playing following the examples of Bley’s breakthroughs.
As a teenaged boogie-woogie specialist “Buzzy” Bley, born in 1932, was gigging locally at 13 and briefly took over Peterson’s regular gig at Montreal’s Alberta Lounge in 1949, when the latter made his New York debut. The next year Bley moved south to study at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, and by the mid-1950s had not only recorded with alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, be-bop’s avatar, but made his first LP Introducing Paul Bley, on Debut records, in a trio with legendary modernists, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Art Blakey. Bley, who had married pianist/composer Carla Bley – née Karen Borg – was leading a conventional Modern Jazz Quartet-styled combo in Los Angeles in 1958, when he let his bassist Charlie Haden’s friends, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and pocket trumpeter Don Cherry, sit in. Coleman’s revolutionary restructuring of the then-accepted jazz basics – so that improvisations didn’t have to be based on the initial structure and where every player was free to contribute his variants to the tune – was a revelation to and influence on Bley.
Back in New York, Bley became a charter member of the so-called New Thing and the Jazz Composers Guild, alongside certified avant-gardists such as militant tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, bandleader Sun Ra and pianist Cecil Taylor, among others. He expressed his new-found polytonal keyboard freedom on two 1960s LPs for the ESP label. One, Barrage, was with a quintet including drummer Milford Graves and the Sun Ra Arkestra’s alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, and included distinctive cover art work by Canadian visual artist Michael Snow. Closer, a session with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Barry Altschul, was one of the multitude of trio discs Bley would make with a succession of bassists and drummers during the 1960s and 1970s. On it, Bley redefined the idea of interplay in the jazz trio in a method much different than Peterson’s traditional follow-the-leader approach. It was this conception of bluesy yet cerebral intensity that welcomed other players’ ideas at any time, which influenced Jarrett and many other keyboardists. Earlier, Bley and Swallow had been part of multi-reedist Jimmy Giuffre’s drummer-less trio, which played hushed chamber jazz informed by folksy themes and European atonality. The band’s masterpiece was Free Fall (Columbia), and it and the trio’s other discs are generally acknowledged as the initial influence on ECM Records’ characteristic sound.
Meanwhile Closer could also describe Bley’s relationship with his favourite composers of the era. Except for the odd original, standard and Coleman covers, the majority of his repertoire – including certified jazz classics like Ida Lupino, And Now the Queen and Ictus – was composed by Carla Bley. After they separated, his next companion, singer/keyboardist Annette Peacock, composed much of the material he played. As late as 1992 he recorded an entire disc consisting of Peacock material simply entitled Annette (hatOLOGY). His associates were bassist Gary Peacock and Viennese flugelhornist Franz Koglmann. Bley’s sparse piano ruminations that terminated when he was satisfied, not according to conventional structures, plus his low-key articulation also appealed to the growing European free music experimenters. Besides work with Koglmann and Swiss reedist Hans Koch, some of his best latter day sessions were with Europeans: Time Will Tell and Sankt Gerold Variations 1-12 recorded for ECM in the mid-1990s with British saxophonist Evan Parker and long-time American-in-France, bassist Barre Phillps; Chaos (Soul Note) with British drummer Tony Oxley and Italian bassist Furio di Castri; and Florida with Danish drummer Kresten Osgood.
Bley’s association with Annette Peacock was around the same time as he began experimenting with the Moog. Besides recording several discs showing off its parameters, he was the first improviser to adapt the analog keyboard synthesizer for live performances. After spending a couple of years working out strategies for multi-keyboard and patch chording, Bley abandoned the synth and returned to piano. After that he was usually recorded in classic piano trio or solo piano formats. The exquisite Play Blue (ECM), a meditative solo disc recorded in 2008 and released in 2014, is his final session as of this time.
Although Bley left the synthesizer for others to explore he didn’t give up on multimedia. With his wife, video artist Carol Goss who survives him, for a decade starting in 1974 he co-founded and ran Improvising Artists Inc. (IAI), which recorded 20 discs and some of the first music videos. Besides his own work, Bley and IAI put out discs by established improvisers such as Peacock, Giuffre, Ra and saxophonist Sam Rivers as well as younger discoveries. Jaco, IAI’s sixth release with Bley on electric piano and Bruce Ditmas on drums, was the studio recording debut of future jazz superstars, guitarist Pat Metheney and electric bassist Jaco Pastorius.
During the 1990s Bley also taught part-time at Boston’s New England Conservatory. Among his many students was Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii. Her first CD, Something about Water (Libra) from 1995, is a duo date with Bley. Similarly, although he hadn’t lived in Canada for about half a century, along with his other projects, Bley recorded a series of albums with several Canadians during the 1990s and aughts. They included such well-received efforts as Double Time with flutist Jane Bunnett; Outside In with guitarist Sonny Greenwich; Know Time with drummer Geordie McDonald and trumpeter Herbie Spanier; Touché with fellow expatriate Canadian, flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler; and Travelling Lights featuring saxophonist François Carrier and drummer Michel Lambert, all on Justin Time records.
No matter whether he played in duo or larger formations, Bley’s off-handed mastery, which combined narrative delicacy with rhythmic astringency, was always completely original and instantly identifiable. What better epitaph than that can there be for an improvising musician?
Ken Waxman’s column Something in the Air is a regular feature of The WholeNote’s CD review section, DISCoveries.