Point of Order


I’ve been a fan of painter Etienne Zack’s work for years and was pleased to learn he’s moved from LA to Point Roberts, Washington. Not exactly Vancouver, but close enough! I’m going to be very interested in how the more rural setting will affect his work which, for a number of years has involved the detailed rendering of fantastic rooms of books and documents lit by fluorescent tubes. I met up with Etienne to catch up and chat about his work for VR Media. This portrait was shot in his backyard, a far cry from his usual urban environs of Montreal or LA.


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Anja Lechner & François Couturier

anjalechner Munich-based cellist Anja Lechner and Paris-based pianist François Couterier are two musicians whose body of work has exemplified the diversity, delicacy and unapologetic beauty of the “ECM sound” over the past 20+ years . They have played with (among many others) Argentine bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi, Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem, together as a duo and as part of François’ outstanding Tarkovsky Quartet (formed in part, as tribute to the great Russian filmmaker). As a duo they have a current CD out titled Moderato Cantabile (featuring the music of Komitas, Mompou, and Gurdjieff) and the Tarkovsky Quartet has just released Nuit Blanche.

On February 21st they performed on a bill with the incomparable guitarist Ralph Towner at the Seattle Art Museum. I traveled down for the concert and to stay for a photo shoot with Anja and François the next day. The SAM and the Earshot Jazz crew were incredibly accommodating and Anja and François were delightful company throughout the afternoon. If they make it to these shores again you simply must see them. Theirs is a special chemistry in live performance.


And from the rehearsals on the day of the performance, here is a photo of Anja playing. François was a little harder to shoot during the performance due to the lighting arrangement. I don’t usually do performance photography but this moment during rehearsal allowed for me to be in an ideal spot on stage.




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emerson-masterMany years ago I bought a Deutsche Grammophon box set of the complete, recorded cycle of Bartok’s string quartets. The musicians were none other than the great New York-based Emerson Quartet, who I’ve subsequently enjoyed in concert countless times. Through my association with Friends of Chamber Music I’ve had the privilege of meeting, interviewing and occasionally dining with some of the greatest chamber players in the world, the Emersons among them. I’m also a fan of music packaging and posters so it has been a great deal of fun doing a series of posters for this august organization which has entailed coming up with a new look for the organization and a new marketing strategy for the 2016/17 season.

Postering has enjoyed a huge comeback in Vancouver so it was decided to get Friends of Chamber Music into the fray alongside DJ events, Rocky Horror revivals and everything else out there using the classic 11 by 17 poster to entice people through the doors. My first exposure to this street advertising format was during Vancouver’s punk heyday when I’d scan hoardings and lampposts for announcements of concerts by the Young Canadians or Subhumans. Since those days I’ve mostly worked with ambient, pop or jazz musicians on projects like this so it’s nice to finally come around and work with some old school, truly class(ic) acts!

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loscil 2016

scott-morgan72Scott Morgan (aka loscil) has a new release out on Kranky Records called Monument Builders. Somewhat darker in tone than past releases it bears all the hallmarks of a classic loscil release. I’ve written more about this on the VR Media site here:

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Mats Eilertsen

If you came of age in the vinyl era you may have expanded your musical horizons by scanning the credits on record sleeves and booklets. You may have noticed that certain musicians, engineers and producers’ names kept coming up time and time again. These were often signposts for new paths to follow that would lead to further discovery of new music. It’s like looking at a healthy root system that eventually leads you up and out to broader vistas. In the jazz world, sometimes you’d just look for a label. Maybe it’s ECM, or Blue Note, or Verve. But root systems are varied and you need to pay attention.

What am I getting at? Well, I like many musicians on the ECM label. Many are from Norway and they frequently work on others’ projects. As you’ll note from the recent glut of portraits of ECM artists I’ve posted, a few of these fine players have come through town recently; Thomas Strønen, Tord Gustavsen, Anat Fort and Avishai Cohen. After failing to scan the credits on their releases in recent years, I missed the name Mats Eilertsen.

As his smoking hot trio played here at Ironworks in June as part of the Jazz Fest, I noticed Thomas Strønen was on drums! I’d seen Thomas with his duo Food and only just recalled that Mats was an original member of that group. Then later, after photographing Tord Gustavsen, I saw that Mats was the bassist on his two most recent ECM quartet albums. In short, Mats has been an integral part of so many great recordings and his trio is a delight.

And now he has his first release on ECM as leader. It’s called Rubicon and it’s out this month. On first listen it’s both classic ECM and a fresh reach with a large cast of new-ish players. I’ll be scanning the credits a little more carefully from now on.

Here’s the trio:



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New Cathedrals – Simin Tander and Tord Gustavsen

SiminTanderThis past June, Coastal Jazz brought a very unique trio to town that defied my expectations to deliver one of the most sublime concerts of the year at Christ Church Cathedral.

Tord Gustavsen has led a traditional piano trio for many years now, one which normally serves up a very pristine and beautiful (if often mournful) music. It’s almost out of place within the ECM catalogue because it is, on first impression, so very softly melodic, yearning and romantic. There is little in the way of abstraction, improvisation or inverted and toyed-with melodies that are typical of so many ECM recordings. His first trio outing for ECM was 2003’s Changing Places which features a gauzy curtain-like image on the cover which fits the mood almost too precisely. It would be dinner background music if you failed to listen carefully. But do. It’s so lovely!

Along with bassist Harald Johnsen (and more recently Mats Eilerstsen) in his usual working group is drummer Jarle Vespestad, who was previously with the insanely talented improvising Norwegian supergroup known as Supersilent (which they certainly were not, which was one reason he headed to the fold with Gustavsen). I’d seen him in 2008 with Supersilent and was initially surprised at hearing him settle into a far less abstract jazz idiom. With Gustavsen’s material, Vespestad frequently sticks to fingertip, brush and soft mallet. He’s a subtle master and his restrained style leaves no hint at the power and fury he’s capable of generating in other settings.

And that becomes the point. Gustavsen seems to cherish restraint and all of his recordings follow a similar path. Nothing is underdone or overdone. Everything seems considered and polished, but not to the point of preciousness. I’d previously avoided seeing him live because as much as I enjoy the recordings, I couldn’t imagine it translating well to the concert hall and generating much excitement. But that was a mistake, and I nearly did it again this year.

The new CD is called What was said, and in place of a bassist, it features Afghan/German singer Simin Tander. It is a unique set because it has Tord reworking traditional Norwegian Lutheran hymns (with which he was raised), creating new pieces around the poetry of Rumi, and otherwise creating delicate, gem-like fusions around themes of grief, longing and unbound faith. Simin sings the pieces in English, Pashto and an improvised, imagined language where translation isn’t necessary…or possible! However, a quiet room and a good sound system is. It almost comes at a whisper at times, so much so that I imagined the music risked being so delicate as to float away in a venue like Christ Church Cathedral when performed live.

On the evening of the concert I had a front row seat, right in front of the minimal drum kit. The trio emerges and right away there is the feeling that something special’s going to happen. And it does. Jarle comes out in a dark, snug suit and eventually brings out a glass of red wine. A class act, and he is a joy to watch in performance. Tord also cut a fine, gentlemanly figure and stopped on occasion to speak (softly) about the music and the international and interfaith nature of some of the pieces.

Most of the new CD is performed, but offering versions that make it a live tour de force! Simin Tander is magnificent and lets fly several times during many ebbs and swells of the evening which are bathed in a subtle electronic soundscapes and given added weight with Tord playing synth bass parts with the left hand. Simin was most riveting when she employed singing techniques which I cannot name but I assume are typical of, or adapted from, her ancestral homeland. The Cathedral, under tarps and scaffolding while restoration and construction carry on, was not only the perfect venue but felt like the perfect place for discovering a new faith in the live experience of a music steeped in several.

TordFinalThe next morning I met Tord and Simin at The Sandman Inn, one of the least appealing looking hotels in the city’s least appealing downtown zone. An aging 1980s sports architecture aesthetic dominates the area and I was at a loss for location options. Oh, and I had 15 minutes before they were to be picked up to be taken to the airport. Gracious and generous, they arrived at my makeshift spot by a shelter on the QE Theatre plaza, coffees in hand. They looked effortlessly great. We enjoyed a brief chat and were able to get these portraits done in time for them to make the connection for their show that night in Rochester! Sometimes you just need a little faith!

Check them out here:

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Seeing the Forest with Anat Fort

AnatFort2 There was a time when I didn’t understand why anyone needed more than one or two great jazz piano trio recordings. But once I came to see the format as one of the most efficient and flexible configurations for revealing a composer’s voice and character in the fullest sense, I can’t seem to get enough. Further, ECM, the world’s premier independent jazz label is going through an extremely productive phase right now and right in the heart of this purple patch is Anat Fort, an Israeli born, New York-based pianist who embraces a delicate lyricism yet finds elliptical breezes at unexpected moments. Her music satisfies the heart and intellect in equal, seemingly effortless, measure.

She has three recordings out on ECM. While my favourite remains A Long Story, her first on ECM, Birdwatching, the new one that includes Italian clarinetist Gianluigi Trovesi, is gaining ground after I saw her perform material from the album in a duo with Trovesi at the Vancouver Jazz Fest in June. We’d arranged to meet up for a brief chat and some photos. Anat has played here with her trio before and has a fondness for the city, likening the waterfront, in part, to that of her home town of Tel Aviv. She will be back!AnatFort1

MM: What is it about the classic trio format that appeals to you?

Anat: I feel that more than three people on the stage is challenging. I can play solo, in a duo, as part of a quartet and with an orchestra but there’s always something about the trio. It is like a triangle that is not always equidistant where the lengths between points are not always the same. It can change the balance between these three points but it always comes back to being a triangle. Some how the trio feels right to me.

MM: You’re very much associated with Paul Bley (her mentor) and Paul Motion (who appears on A Long Story), two musicians who are more often given to abstraction. Your music seems more frequently lyrical and melodic.

Anat: Yes I’m highly influenced by Paul and … Paul! But I think you will hear that the lyrical and melodic parts may come from the influence of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. I am just as influenced by them. I always talk to my students about the importance of melody. It can become very abstract along the way – all kinds of stuff can happen – but the essence of a piece is contained in the melody.

MM: What is the well you most often return to for inspiration?

Anat: On a daily basis the well is called “Bach”!

MM: I was thinking non-musical!

Anat: In many ways, nature. And it doesn’t have to be going out into the wild. It can be walking in the park next door to where I live, just hanging out with the trees. That’s something that always brings me back to myself. It’s very easy to ignore because trees are everywhere in North America and even Tel Aviv. True, it’s not the same as going out into a wilder landscape but I try to do what’s within my reach.

And the sea. The Mediterranean is ten minutes from where I live. Water always moves me and everything that moves around it like the clouds and the movement of the birds…the basics, you know?

MM: Which brings up an obvious question in light of the title of the new Album!

Anat: I’ve never been a serious birder but I have done some birdwatching and hope to get into it more!


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Time is a Blind Guide – Thomas Strønen


I first heard of Thomas Strønen via his work with Food on the Rune Grammofon label in 2004. The CD was called (wait for it!) Last Supper. Food’s core was always Thomas and saxophonist Iain Ballamy but each release expanded with new personnel. At the time I’d found very few percussionist-led groups very satisfying. But Food was different, largely because it was really a duo and though Strønen appears to be the predominant force, it wouldn’t fly without Ballamy’s ability to dovetail and flesh out the arrangements with reeds and electronics. Together they are almost a more urgent variant on the John Surman/Jack DeJohnette sax, electronics and percussion duo model.

I usually expect a sax/percussion duo to be very spare and possibly too reliant on extended technique. Not so with Food. Alternately delicate and forceful, Food packs a tasteful complexity and registers Thomas as an immediately identifiable personality, which, to my mind, is the ultimate goal in music making. Adding a degree of lyricism and humour they approach perfection. Subsequent releases went from strength to strength. The label shift to ECM brought us Quiet Inlet and Mercurial Balm which included contributions from Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz, and Eivind Aarset and Nils Petter Molvaer, two long time favourites of mine from the Norwegian hybrid jazz/electronic scene.

In January of 2014 I nearly missed Food at Ironworks. Coastal Jazz had brought them to town and I just caught the listing online at the last minute, cancelled whatever I had planned and headed to the venue post haste. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’d seen there. The funny part was that Alex Varty, writing in the Georgia Straight, referered to them as a “Euro Jazz Supergroup”! No. Just two guys with a telepathic connection and a traveling kitbag packed with explosive talent! I spoke to Iain and Thomas briefly afterwards and we promised to stay in touch for the next visit. That opportunity came not as a Food concert but with Thomas playing with Mats Eilertsen (also a Food alumnus) at Ironworks in June as part of Coastal Jazz’s always excellent Innovations series. This time we had loads of time for some portraits and chat.

The new release from Thomas (leading a larger group) is called Time is a Blind Guide and it represents a high water mark for both the artist and the ECM label. I don’t want to be in the business of reviewing CDs (if you’re reading something on this blog, just assume I love it!) so here’s The Guardian’s take on it  https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/05/thomas-stronen-time-is-a-blind-guide-review-crossover-jazz

It’s also notable for having one of the nicer cover images in keeping with the “late period” ECM “house style”!





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The Warm Cool of Avishai Cohen


I can’t remember the last time I saw a bandleader count in a tune with snapped fingers. But with Avishai Cohen it seems a natural fit. The guy radiates an effortless, warm cool. Yes, warm cool! The music press touts him as a Miles Davis-influenced player of uncommon voice and while that’s true, he also fits neatly within a new generation of players who are simultaneously lyrical and intellectual, raw and polished who turn on a dime with unexpected nods to tradition.

Avishai brought a crack quartet to perform in Vancouver as part of The Chutzpah Festival and after opening with a classic Count Basie tune, performed, in its entirety, the new release Into the Silence on ECM. This was a rare appearance north of the border but this Tel Aviv-born, New York-based gem will doubtless be returning if the reception given by the night’s packed house is any indication.

Normally I like to offer a little bit of an interview with the music-related posts but time was fairly tight this time around. I found Avishai to be very accommodating and generous with his time for this and the session reminded me why I do it. It creates the kind of connection that can spin off in unpredictable ways and, hopefully, pique some curiosity among new listeners for a music that remains deep, relevant and, when performed at this level, exhilarating to experience live.

And while not looking to encourage smoking, Avishai does cut a great figure firing one up, especially as it evokes the act of playing…

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Sympathetic Strings


When Dublin-born, Paris-based musician Garth Knox comes to town you can never be sure whether he’ll be performing on an early music or new music concert program. That’s because he flits effortlessly between the two and it seems there are some interesting underlying reasons for this.

Knox came to prominence through Pierre Boulez’ Ensemble InterContemporain and later joined the formidable Arditti quartet whose stock in trade was playing some of the most esoteric and difficult new music of the 20th century. But in recent years he’s become a passionate proponent of the viola d’amore, a very old instrument with a rich history which he argues has all the characteristics required for creating the music of our time.

In Vancouver this past winter as part of Vancouver New Music’s 2016 concert series, I sat down with Garth and asked about the curious gulf between early and new music audiences.

MM: It’s something I’ve observed over years of concert going. There seems to be great affinity and overlap between new and early music audiences but not so much when it comes to the classical period.

GK: I think it is true that there is something in common between the new music and older music. New music composers are not so interested in Brahms and Schuman and the more romantic composers. Now they’re more interested in medieval music whereas before, baroque music was interesting. Now there seems to be more interest in the likes of Guillaume de Machaut.

It’s very common and it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is. It seems that to those people the romantic stuff was a bit superficial. An example might be found in classical dance, which is very pretty, but Swan Lake is not of the everyday whereas in a modern dance performance people dress normally they do like you and me but they do something much more interesting. So I think there’s a bit of that in contemporary music. It’s less of putting on an act, pretending to be somebody your not, but more trying to say something with the sounds that are ‘round about us. And the sounds that are ‘round about us include noise and all kinds of strange things. It was the same in medieval music. They used what they had and there wasn’t this pretention of being above yourself.

MM: What is it about the sonorities of this instrument that make it so intriguing to some composers?

GK: It’s interesting to do new music on old instruments. Sometimes people don’t realize they’re already doing it but even romantic composers were writing for instruments that were already “old”. They were really baroque instruments and they were trying to write this big romantic stuff for them so they had to change them a little bit. But, essentially, they remained the same instruments.

I think it’s very interesting to now go back to an even older instrument like the viola d’amore. It’s been a bit forgotten because it was made for one type of music and when the music changed they didn’t use it anymore. There’s so much you can do with it but it was like the baby that got washed out with the bathwater.

So the viola d’amore had lots of possibilities which went unexplored when it faded into the background. It never disappeared, it just…faded. What I’m interested in doing now is bringing it out of the cupboard and showing all of its possibilities which maybe hadn’t been realized at the time. The sonority is very pleasing, it’s timeless. And though it has a baroque, medieval feel about it, you can do so much with it. It’s a very fruitful thing to bring the past and present together and move into the future.

MM: There is a renewed interest in long form, “drone” type music. Indian classical, western avant garde, folk and even electronic minimalism often have drone elements at their root. The viola d’amore seems well suited to being a part of any and all of these forms because it’s got the sympathetic strings.

GK: Folk music has always used drones. I think that’s a fundamental element and then there’s the newer idea of resonance and spectralism which is using one note which contains them all. There you need a drone because you’re analyzing one big note and an instrument like the viola d’amore is perfect for that because it’s made for keeping one resonance and exploring what’s inside that resonance. So you’re opening up one note rather than adding lots of notes together. So instead of making a building it’s more like you’re taking one little brick and pulling it apart to see what’s inside of it.

MM: On both of your ECM discs (D’Amore and Salterello) there’s an interesting mix of composers and eras. The very contemporary music of Klaus Huber, Kaija Saariaho sits alongside that of Tobias Hume, Marin Marais, music from the 17th Century. Yet all the pieces all sit comfortably side by side. And there’s nothing from the “great” romantic era.

GK: Well there’s the certain unity created by the fact that it’s the same person playing it … and the same instrument. But also, for me, those musics correspond to each other. For example the Tobias Hume piece stays around one note. It’s not trying to go anywhere. It’s already somewhere very beautiful and is just exploring where it is. I think you’ll find the same in Kaija Saariaho’s music. She’s a very interesting spectral composer and she’s finding a soundworld which is so beautiful that she’s not going to lead you anywhere away from it. She’s just showing you more of what’s already there, which is a very different way of working.

And on Salterello there’s music by Hildegard von Bingen which is some of the oldest music (from the 11th century) that we can play on this instrument. And again it is very simple music. I suppose it’s a matter of bringing out what the world has round about us, listening to what’s there and of choosing one feature and making that important investing in something that’s already there and making it even more interesting.

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