When you go see a concert, those aren't disembodied instruments up there on stage. There are people behind them, with histories and individual approaches to their instruments – and lots of stories to recount, both musically and verbally.
Especially if they have years of experience and skill in improvisation and jazz, like NYC bassist William Parker, Toronto baritone saxophonist David Mott, and Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart.
This Friday, when the three step onto the stage at GigSpace, they'll be creating new musical narratives on the spot. It's just like at their first show together in 2007, just like their shows last spring at GigSpace, and just like in the new album they're releasing: Telling Stories.
Watch our associated video story
David Mott on the Sonoluminescence Trio in performance
“I think the three of us are storytellers in many ways,” Mott told OttawaJazzScene.ca. “That sounds funny, because I mean: what's the story? Well, of course anybody's free to interpret that any way they like or get it to overlay anything that they like. But I always look at music as some kind of a journey and/or story. Not quite a narrative in the usual sort of sense, but in some way that you're inviting the audience in. And I think storytelling is a good way to do that.”
Each member of the trio comes from a different city and has a different history, but they also have a great deal in common – including a love of jazz improvisation and a strong connection to the Guelph Jazz Festival, where the trio first performed. Parker is a composer, bandleader, and teacher, whose double bass has graced stages around the world for decades, playing with many high-profile musicians and especially those playing avant-garde jazz (though he recently released a CD of Duke Ellington's music as well).
David Mott is an internationally acclaimed composer and baritone saxophonist, whose music over his long career has crossed back and forth from free jazz to classical to mainstream, and from solo performances to orchestral. He's taught at York University, where he met Stewart, since the mid-70s. Jesse Stewart is one of the most innovative musicians in Canada, whose instruments reach well beyond the standard drumset to ice, stone, fire – and even house keys. A Juno-winner with the Stretch Orchestra, he also is a professor of music at Carleton University.
Mott and Stewart have performed together many times over more than 15 years (they released an album together last year called Anagrams). Both of them had listened to Parker's music, live and recorded, for years. But the first time all three played together was in September, 2007.
We get on the bandstand, and he just lets loose this torrent – and I go 'Oh oh ... OK.' [laughs]. So I was able to just hang right in there with him and then we played solid for an hour. And the people went nuts and we got a standing ovation!
– David Mott
It started with Mott playing a duo concert in Toronto with Parker. “He didn't know me from anybody. He didn't know who I was. I came up to William and I said, 'So, William, do you like to play long, or do you like to play short?' – getting some sort of idea as to what kind of overall approach we would take. And he said, 'Oh man, we'll just chill and see what happens.' ”
“And then we get on the bandstand, and he just lets loose this torrent – and I go 'Oh oh ... OK.' [laughs]. So I was able to just hang right in there with him and then we played solid for an hour. And the people went nuts and we got a standing ovation! And William said, 'A short one?' and I said, 'Yeah...' – and it was another 20 minutes. So we got something established there.”
The following Sunday, all three performed at the Guelph Jazz Festival, in a concert arranged by the festival's long-time artistic director, Ajay Heble.
“William was very laid-back,” Mott said. “He brought out some flutes, and we played actually quite meditatively, I would say, in relationship to what had occurred in Toronto. The energy was very, very easy-going and very laid-back, and we struck up a relationship in that kind of musical territory."
“So I think we laid out a basis as to the fact that almost anything is possible. We could go anywhere. We could be chill, or we could be intense, or we could play grooves, or we could play sound, or we could do whatever – and when you build in that kind of relationship, or you develop that kind of a musical relationship it really is a chance to just completely trust in the moment what's going to happen.”
The three were billed as the Sonoluminescence Trio, at Stewart's suggestion. Sonoluminescence is a process through which sound energy is transferred into light, he said, and “it seemed like a nice metaphor for what I think each of us try to do – trying to convert sound into light.”
Seven years later...
In March, 2014, Stewart brought Parker to Ottawa for a series of performances and lectures, including two back-to-back shows with him and Mott on a Friday night at GigSpace – reviving the Sonoluminescence Trio.
The shows sold out, with enthusiastic audiences. Mott said they were happy with both sets: “it just flowed so effortlessly. I think the three of us had a really good time.”
Afterwards, the three ended up at the Elgin Street Diner. “We just told stories for hours, eating French fries and doing whatever. And we had the best time, because we hadn't had that much opportunity in a personal space to do that. That was really fun, and it helped cement an even deeper bond between the three of us,” Mott said.
That weekend, they were scheduled to record at Bova Sound, to produce what ended up as Telling Stories.
By accident, a warmer sound and more stories
But as they were about to start, engineer Phil Victor Bova discovered a hardware glitch in his digital recording system. While Bova worked to fix the problem, they hung out and told more stories: “stories about bring on the road; about interesting, and in some cases, eccentric musical personalities that each of us had encountered,” Stewart said.
“It was actually nice to have that time to relax and hang out and laugh and get comfortable. So yes, I think it did influence the session at some level.”
Bova found the part that needed repairing, and suggested a solution to save time: using his vintage Ampex analog reel-to-reel recorder with two-inch tape. “I think it was actually a real blessing in disguise, because the record sounds very warm as a result,” Stewart said.
That machine belonged to Columbia Studios in New York City in the late 1960s and throughout the 70s – and may have very well taped jazz greats like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. “That was another story, that Phil told us while we were recording.”
Once they actually started the recording session, “it felt like we continued to tell stories but through music,” Stewart said.
Just as in their concerts, all the music in the album was improvised on the spot, in a collaborative effort.
“I'm the horn player in the trio, but I don't feel like my role is any more or less significant than anybody else's for that matter. I'm just another voice,” Mott said. “There are times when I'm playing off of William's and Jesse's rhythms. And doing something or setting up something rhythmic. I often do that, and I like doing that. To be absolutely honest, the thing that I really love doing is being part of a collaborative process, rather than to be a soloist, or the horn player – which I find terribly limiting [laughs].”
There's this kind of flux from moment to moment as to what's going to be happening and how that's going to be happening there – whether somebody's going to take the lead, whether you're going to play off of somebody else, whether you're going to contribute something different or new.
– David Mott
“In the trio format, it's easy to be subservient to the other, in the risk of more or less accompanying. Of course we all know how to accompany and we all know how to solo, and we all know how to collaborate. So there's this kind of flux from moment to moment as to what's going to be happening and how that's going to be happening there – whether somebody's going to take the lead, whether you're going to play off of somebody else, whether you're going to contribute something different or new. I don't know how to even describe the decision-making process because it's so instantaneous with listening and feeling where the music should go.”
On “Frame Drum Blues”, Stewart said he was “sitting behind the drumset, and I just started playing frame drum. It had this bluesy feel and then at some point in the middle of the thing, I think I accidentally hit my hi-hat [cymbal] and so then that was in the mix. And so I hit it again, and again, and that somehow transitioned the music into a groove from the frame drum to more of a kind of laid-black bluesy shuffle. But that was not discussed ahead of time. We didn't say, 'Let's play a blues.' I think I did say, maybe I'll play frame drum on one and just see what happens.”
Unlike many free jazz albums, most of the tracks on this album have a noticeable groove and complicated rhythms. For example, the album opens with “Echoes of Africa”, which features Parker playing a bass line “highly reminiscent of guembri playing,” Stewart said. The guembri (or sintir) is a string instrument that's used by the Gnawa people of North Africa in their ritual music.
“That's one of the things I can say about the trio is that we all seem to have a very cohesive aesthetic, so wherever the music goes, we're all three willing to go there. Whether it's pulse or pulse-less or whatever it is,” Mott said.
For each song, Mott said, they might decide to “hit it all together” or to let one person take the lead and then “make musical choices as the result of that. So we figured out where we were going to start from. We had no idea where we were going to arrive.”
And because of the studio layout, they couldn't see each other: Mott was alone in one room, and Stewart and Parker were separated by a barrier. They had to communicate strictly sonically, and “feel where an ending is going to be, and listen for that carefully and respect that and follow up on it.”
Composed – or not?
The resulting music sounds cohesive – in fact, almost as though it was composed in advance. Mott said he had a similar experience in a live concert he and Stewart played with bassist Rob Clutton in at Parc de l'Imaginaire in Aylmer in 2013.
“Jesse said, 'This is a park. People are just going to wander in. We probably should play some groove stuff', and Rob said sure, and I said sure. And we had the most wonderful reaction, because people came up to us afterwards and they said, 'What was the name of that second piece?' And we said, 'Well, Improvisation #2.' And they said, 'You mean, that wasn't something that was composed? It felt like it was composed!' Which is a wonderful thing, when people hear something and think there's a vague familiarity to it, although it's something different and they can't really quite place it. I love that kind of ambiguity when there's a familiarity, but yet it goes somewhere else at the same time.”
"Ajay's Dream" vision
The artwork on the album's front cover is by painter Jeff Schlanger. Schlanger creates what he calls musicWitness art, “where he goes and he paints at live performances, generally of improvised music, and I feel as though he really captures the energy and intensity and spontaneity of the music. It's really quite amazing what he does,” Stewart said.
This particular painting is called “Ajay's Dream”, and was created during the trio's 2007 Guelph Jazzfest concert. “I feel as though it's quite a wonderful representation of the trio, [not just] of that performance from 2007, but of the trio more generally,” Stewart said.
Hovering above the trio in the painting “is this very beautiful painting of Ajay [Heble]. If you look up toward the left-hand corner a little bit, you'll see Ajay there. He's in a smoky, wispy, ethereal representation there,” Mott said.
All three musicians have had a close and long-term relationship with both the Guelph Jazz Festival and Heble, its artistic director. “Really we have Ajay to thank for that trio getting to play together in the first place,” Stewart said. “And he's a friend of all of us. We all know Ajay well and he's one of my closest friends, certainly. But he's a mutual friend.”
“Ajay has been very influential, I think, on the Canadian scene, like Michel Levasseur, for example, in Victoriaville and Ken Pickering in Vancouver and before that Susan Hunter in Halifax. I think of those folks as really laying down a standard of artistic sensibilities in terms of who they got to play and when and who they played with and all those kinds of things and being really critical to the scene in Canada,” Mott said.
More CDs – and a book
This summer, both Mott and Stewart will be performing at Ottawa Chamberfest, together with Dutch cello virtuoso Ernst Reijseger. Their July 25 show will also be a CD release, of the recording the three made last September in Toronto.
Stewart also has another recording waiting for release, made last fall with Korean percussionist Dong-Won Kim. And after he performs with saxophonist Joe McPhee and bassist Nicolas Caloia at the Ottawa Jazz Festival this June, the three of them will also be heading over to record at Bova Sound.
And Mott has a non-musical project as well: he's tweaking the final draft of a book on a martial art he's been participating for 51 years called uechi-ryū-do. “I wanted to really address some of the deeper issues of what's experienced in the body, mind, and spirit of the practice. I almost wrote it like a textbook - I guess that's my university background - where I give an instruction and then I give a number of things for people to try, and see how these things work for themselves. The experience is not really talked about very much.”
But, as far as Friday's two shows go, Mott said the trio didn't have any specific plans.
“We're going to show up and we'll give each hugs and walk up onto the GigSpace stage and Ready, Set, Go. I don't think we've ever laid out any real plans, except, 'OK, do you want to start one?' 'Sure.' Or Jesse says 'I've got a really nice groove I want to play.' 'OK.' It's that kind of close familiarity with each other that it's like a conversation.”
– Alayne McGregor
Coda: One last story to tell
Those who know David Mott best as an avant-garde jazz improviser may not realize what a major impact saxophonist John Coltrane had on him. “It's hard to shake that. It wasn't deliberate, it wasn't intentional, but it wouldn't be surprising if there were some memories of that or shades of that.”
And he can tell a great story about how he heard Coltrane live.
“I was lucky to be around at a time where I could hear him play live. That was in the mid-60s and the memories of that are indelibly burned in me. That's always going to be there in some way. It's just too potent an experience to deny.
“I was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston and there was a club there called the Jazz Workshop. And he came with a quartet and I can't remember now whether it was just before A Love Supreme recording came out ... I think it was just after. And my roommates, Pat LaBarbera and Joe Calo [and I] went, over a two-week period, practically every night that we could afford. We weren't able to be there all fourteen nights, but we would be there as much as we could. We knew the club owner, who was a tenor saxophonist, a very good one actually, and he would let us hang around after the band stopped.
“They would stop at 1 or 1:30 and then Trane would invariably find the first table near the bandstand that was open and would come and sit down and start practicing from the Slonimsky sorts of scales. And we'd just sit there listening to him practice. Somebody asked me, 'Did you go up and talk to him?' I said, 'Are you kidding? It's like talking to God! [laughs] What would you say? What kind of reeds do you use?' I wouldn't know what to say to the man. I was just so in awe.”
Read related stories on OttawaJazzScene.ca:
- David Mott on the Sonoluminescence Trio in performance (with video of the 2014 show by the trio at GigSpace)
- Jesse Stewart brings renowned improviser William Parker to Ottawa for innovative concerts and lectures
- William Parker tells Guelph 2013: You can't resurrect the jazz masters
- Hamid Drake and Jesse Stewart: percussion as you've never heard it before this Friday
- Jesse Stewart talks about the challenges of making music outdoors at -25C (video)
- David Mott's Journey to the Land of Oz