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

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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A Brief Window

BlossomsVerticalMMPThere needn’t be a reason to revel in the heart-stopping beauty of Vancouver’s myriad cherry blossoms. But in this case there was; the creation of a new video piece. I’ve always photographed flowers and trees, especially since seeing the Flora Photographica exhibit at the VAG many decades ago. The city is blessed with extensive and thoughtful early plantings of a variety of ornamental cherry trees along streets in virtually every neighbourhood. You can stand among them for hours when the brief window opens in early spring.

These are effectively stills from the video. I think they stand alone.

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Tell Me Did You Miss Them?

LUNA_November04v3I have been a big fan of the wry, late Velvet-y New York band Luna since I first heard Smile from their debut album Luna Park back in 1992. I subsequently saw every live gig they did in Vancouver from supporting The Cocteau Twins (!) at The Vogue Theatre to their farewell shot at Richards on Richards in 2004. They were like comfort food. Every couple of years they’d release a very solid record that inevitably grew to perfection on repeated listening.

But after more than a decade on the road achieving a level of cult success that looked unlikely to wear well into their “golden years”, they called it a day. The final hurrah was beautifully documented in Matthew Buzzell’s film Tell Me Do You Miss Me, a rock doc that acutely and wryly observes the travails endured by Luna on their “farewell” tour and lays bare the endless comic ironies of being a cult band facing endless adoration but without the much deserved financial reward and requisite audience growth.

Then came Dean & Britta (who produced several wonderful, glittering pop records), Dean’s hilarious, enlightening and touching memoir Black Postcards and, finally, an eponymous solo album. True to form, Dean & Britta returned time and again to Vancouver and Dean came both as a solo artist and to revisit his Galaxie 500 material from the late 80s. And again, the same venues. Richards on Richards and…The Biltmore. All of these worthy post-Luna projects arrived at precisely the time that the music industry finally gave up the ghost. Yet there was always a bit of Luna hanging in the air.

Now they are back. And 50 is the new 26 (or thereabouts). Luna have reformed with the late period line-up of Dean, Britta, Sean Eden and Lee Wall to tour the world again but hopefully with a much improved tenor in the tour bus. The response has been fantastic and they’ve once again played New York’s Bowery Ballroom and San Fransisco’s Fillmore West and now they arrive back in the pacific northwest on November 4th to play The Biltmore.

Why do I mention all this? Because I first met Dean in 2003 to do his portrait when he was at the Vancouver International Film Fest promoting the film Piggie which he starred in. After that we touched base whenever he was in town and upon hearing of Luna’s potential return, I offered to do the Vancouver concert poster. So here we are! Some Photoshop and font work on an iPhone shot I took of a used car lot in Spokane in 2013 resulted in this image. I was going for an understated drama with a feel of the pacific northwest and a nod to the idea of this being a second time around. Perhaps there’s even a whiff of Ed Ruscha here. Given Dean’s relocation from New York to LA it seems fitting. In any event this became the limited edition print on sale at the concert. We made 30 of them in addition to an alternate version used by the promoter for postering around town. If you are a fan and would like to get one, please get in touch!

Now we can hope it all sticks and there will be a new recording, a follow up to 2004’s Rendezvous. Perhaps when we’re all 60? If it hasn’t become a condo tower by then, I’m sure The Biltmore will book them again! No, scratch that. Headlining The Vogue!

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Timing & Precision

FallenFor the most part, I use my iPhone to create images from the happenstances of daily life. But occasionally things arrive with such little warning and demand a greater degree of precision and timing…and a better camera/lens combination. After a recent windstorm ripped through BC and caused an incredible amount of damage there was a very tall tree across the way from my apartment that remained standing, seemingly unaffected. But several days afterwards it dropped a wounded bough on the power lines and caused a blackout in my neighbourhood. Soon enough, city arborists discovered it was rotten and in need of bringing down. So one sunny fall morning I awoke to the sound of chainsaws. At 7am I reached for my Canon 5D with a 100mm macro and went out on the balcony. The rainbow effect on the falling bough was not added and a split second later the workman pulled the chainsaw blade away. It seems the two of us were working a fine line that morning.

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The River System

RiverSystemTeaserI’m in the midst of a year-long project to create 17, one minute-long video poems from poet Catherine Owen’s rich and elliptical work The River System for Vancouver Review Media. If Italo Calvino had been female, from the west coast of BC, a bass player in a doom metal band, and had been thinking of the Fraser River instead of Venice while writing Invisible Cities, it might provide some sense of where this project is going. Always and never about the actual place. Many of the imaginary channels are internal. Unseen. Perhaps unrecognized.

We are improvising this as time allows. We both have many streams of work occupying our days and affecting our schedules. The seasons change. The river changes … and we change as we go. A perfectly imperfect way to proceed.

This image was taken through the lens while filming Catherine afloat in the river. It is now the main still for use on social media for advertising the series. The poems will be released piece by piece at irregular intervals in the months ahead on the Vancouver Review Media site. It’s hard to categorize this image for the purpose of the blog but that’s true to the nature of the project.

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Imprints and Firmaments


This past June, Berlin-based pianist Julia Hülsmann brought her trio to Ironworks as part of the always-excellent Jazz Festival line up. She’s released several discs on the venerable Munich-based ECM label. Several of these recordings have recently become favourites of mine and sit well in the current purple patch the label is enjoying. Her 2011 Imprint CD was the first I’d come across. I was immediately struck by the cover’s similarity to an image of mine from the same year. While merely a coincidence, it did compel me to seek out a copy because up until that point I’d thought I’d had enough ECM piano trio recordings to last a lifetime!


ECM has been the home of most of my favourite piano trios: Stefano Bollani, Marylin Crispell, Marcin Wasilewski, Paul Bley, John Taylor, Bobo Stenson and on an on. It was a format I found I couldn’t get enough of seeing as it came to represent a kind of equivalent to the classical string quartet for me; the proving format for displaying the character and strength of a piece, where each voice is essential to the whole and very exposed. In a live setting, both configurations are very exciting when the music and performers both alight!

I like the more joyous and romantic players as well as those whose approach is more elliptical and darkly shaded. Julia Hülsmann falls somewhere in between. She’s as likely to suspend a melody and take a more lean and percussive approach as present exquisite covers of popular tunes by the likes of Seal and Feist. Two recent recordings add trumpet/flugelhorn player Tom Arthurs to the mix (In Full View) and the latest, A Clear Midnight, adds Theo Bleckmann to the new quartet to perform Kurt Weill’s songs of America.

At Ironworks she kept her set focused largely on the two trio recordings, Imprint and End of a Summer. With Robert Landfermann subbing for regular bassist/husband Marc Muellbauer (who remained back in Berlin on family duty), the spotlight fell primarily to Julia and percussionist Heinrich Köbberling for some wonderfully restrained soloing. I say percussionist rather than drummer because his touch with the (very spare) kit was frequently a deft, hands-on affair. Brilliant! The atmosphere was perfect overall and the audience connection was palpable. And while Europe may regularly see these players in larger halls, Ironworks continues to prove its mettle as a versatile and ideally intimate venue.

Additionally, she took time to tell the curious story of Jutta Hipp, a German jazz pianist who managed to escape the circumstances of a chaotic post-war existence to release several recordings on Blue Note in the 50s. She suddenly stopped performing at the height of her powers and finished her working life at a clothing manufacturing company. Her story is worth looking up and there are some academics and historians well on the case.

Hülsmann is a welcome addition to the ECM firmament and, for me, is going to be a perennial favourite in an already substantial and distinguished field.

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The Catalyst

HowardJangFinalsqTxtHere’s an easy one. Portrait. AQ Magazine’s final print edition. Subject: Howard Jang. Bright yellow ladder in the dance studio and a fortuitous collision of existing light and floor markings.

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