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René Lavoie pays hommage to Cannonball Adderley, the saxophonist who changed his life

When René Lavoie first heard a Cannonball Adderley album, he thought “Man, I've got to learn how to play saxophone”.

René Lavoie's main instrument is tenor sax, but he'll switch to alto for this concert to properly interpret Cannonball Adderley's music ©Brett Delmage, 2015

On Saturday, February 27, the Ottawa-area saxophonist and flutist will pay tribute to the music of the renowned alto saxophonist who recorded with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Lavoie first heard Cannonball Adderley's music as a teenager, and it set him on his path as a saxophonist and Latin jazz performer.

The GigSpace concert will also feature J.P. Allain on piano, Normand Glaude on bass, and Megan Jerome on vocals. It will commemorate the 40th anniversary of Cannonball Adderley's sudden death in 1975, and will concentrate on Adderley's music from 1958 to 1965, when he was helping define bop and soul jazz.

But, in particular, Lavoie will celebrate two albums by Adderley which changed his life.

The first was Cannonball Adderley And The Bossa Rio Sextet With Sergio Mendes. As Lavoie tells it, the 1962 album came about when the Brazilian pianist and composer, about 18 or 19 years old at the time, was with his group in New York City. “And Cannonball just happened to go and listen to these guys and a couple weeks later they made a record.”

He first encountered the record around 1973, when he was still in his teens. “You've got to listen to Cannonball Adderley,” he was told. “And in my mind, it was like, 'How good can this guy be with a name like Cannonball? Who is this guy?' [laughs]”

When that record was played for him, “I told myself, I've got to learn how to play saxophone.”

What amazed Lavoie was “just the entire musicality that he conveyed. It was just like mind-boggling for me. I was playing bossa novas and things like that, but I'd never heard a bossa nova played like that. The fact that he was playing bebop lines on bossa rhythms, it was just really good.”

On the record, “they do a lot of bossa novas and sambas that are not that familiar. People don't play them as often as some of the Jobim things. But they're very exciting and they're a lot of fun.”

At that point, “I was 18 years old, I was already playing saxophone, but I'd never studied with anyone. And so it motivated me to start practicing and go to university and actually learn how to play the saxophone. That's how much that record influenced me.”

The second album Lavoie will celebrate is Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley Quintet. Adderley helped launch Wilson's career as a major jazz vocalist, and convinced her to emphasize more sophisticated jazz and ballad material. This album, which they recorded together in 1961, became a jazz vocal classic.

Megan Jerome will interpret the songs Nancy Wilson sang in the album Wilson did with Cannonball Adderley. Those songs are "challenging - melodically, harmonically, emotionally", Jerome said ©Brett Delmage, 2011

He said he was “completely astonished” when he heard the album and particularly at Wilson's singing. “She's doing embellishments with her voice that are just unbelievable. Way ahead of her time.”

“Those are two records people talk about. If you're stuck on an island, you want to have at least those two records.”

At Saturday's concert, Lavoie's quartet will play pieces from both albums – with bebop tunes intermixed with bossa novas – along with three or four other Cannonball tunes from the same 1961-63 period.

Lavoie said he's been playing the tunes from these albums since about 1975 – but since he's primarily a tenor saxophonist, he had to buy an alto sax in order to play them. “So I actually got an alto, maybe a few years later and started learning all these tunes on alto.”

He also started buying Cannonball Adderley records. “And I've got a lot of Cannonball records now. I must have about 20 – even though he's recorded 70, I think.”

A bebopper who played with soul

Cannonball Adderley is best known for the two years he spent in Miles Davis' sextet starting in 1957, playing on the seminal Davis records Milestones and Kind of Blue. After that, he played and recorded with John Coltrane. He also formed his long-lasting and popular quintet with his younger brother, cornet player Nat Adderley, best known as the composer of “Work Song”.

Guitarist Wes Montgomery was another Cannonball protégé, and Lavoie said they are “the two beboppers that played that music with soul. And it's technically so hard to play this music, but yet they play it with soul, and playfulness, and to me it's very inspiring to listen to those guys.”

Lavoie's doing the Cannonball tribute now because it is the 40th anniversary of Cannonball's death. “I don't know if I'll be here for the 50th,” he said, laughing. “So I figured I might as well hit the 40th. And I've been wanting to do a Cannonball thing for a long, long time.”

It was in 1975 when Cannonball Adderley died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Two weeks after Cannonball's death, Lavoie said, there was a concert which influenced him as a saxophonist. Blood, Sweat, and Tears played in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre.

“They did a tribute to Cannonball, and it was outstanding. The horn players in the Blood, Sweat, and Tears band were Lew Soloff who was the trumpet player and Fred Lipsius was the alto player. I went, 'Omigod, is this fantastic!' ”

And then in 1985, Lavoie met Cannonball's brother, Nat Adderley when he played at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. Lavoie told Nat Adderley how much he enjoyed Cannonball's music.

“We happened to sit down and started talking, started talking about Cannonball. And Nat got all emotional, and he was saying 'You know, I'm still upset, man, like Cannonball he went to the doctor and the doctor told him to get this prescription and he never went and got this prescription. And he had his brain hemorrhage and he died. If he went to the pharmacy and got that medication, he'd probably be OK.' And this is like 10 years later! As if Cannonball died last week. He was still really, really bothered by the fact that his brother died so suddenly.”

A continuing love of Latin jazz

Lavoie received his music degree at the University of Ottawa, and then followed up that with a Master's degree in music at the University of Miami from 1979-81. He said listening to the Cannonball Adderley/Sergio Mendes album gave him a continuing interest in Latin jazz. “Even when I started university, I started playing jazz gigs and I would always play things that had Latin rhythms.”

René Lavoie will pay tribute on Saturday, on both alto sax and flute, to renowned saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, whose music inspired Lavoie to become a musician ©2015 Brett Delmage

In Miami, he was surrounded by Latin music, he said, and “really, really good players”. In 1993 at the Banff Centre, he studied Cuban flute with Richard Egues, who invented the cha-cha-cha – and followed that up with further studies with Egues few years later, learning the challenging techniques required. One of his fellow students was Toronto flute player Bill McBirnie, who recently played in Ottawa.

Since 1990, Lavoie has played in the Ottawa Latin big band Los Gringos. “I've always had a keen, keen, keen interest in doing that type of music. It motivates me to play some more.”

However, starting in 1990, he was less visible in Ottawa as a bandleader, because he started working as a music officer at the Canada Council for the Arts. Until he retired in 2010, he kept a lower profile because “I didn't want to feel that I was competing for gigs with people that really needed to make their living at doing gigs.”

He had one major show, a duo with Miguel de Armas, in 2012 at GigSpace, but then 2½ years ago, needed a triple bypass heart operation. “It was a bit of a setback.”

“A very, very gracious lady and an unbelievable singer”

Lavoie said he met Nancy Wilson in person in 2000 in Los Angeles at a jazz educators (IAJE) conference, and had a chance to talk to her. He described her as “a very, very gracious lady and an unbelievable singer”.

“It was remarkable. What really astonished me is that the way she spoke is exactly how she sings! Her sound of voice, her speech, how she talked, it was like she was singing.”

Ottawa vocalist Megan Jerome will interpret the Nancy Wilson numbers in the concert. Lavoie said he's delighted to be able to play with her. “Her singing is so full of character and originality.”

Jerome told OttawaJazzScene.ca that Lavoie had told her about this project and Nancy Wilson in December – and then Roddy Ellias also recommended Wilson to her a few days later. “It seemed like more than a coincidence to me, so I sat down and listened to her records and WOW!! I love her singing! It's so clear and energizing!”

She wrote Lavoie thanking him for the recommendation, and he invited her to take part in the concert. Jerome said she was excited at learning this material, and, as a change, “singing jazz standards in a jazz band at a jazz gig!”

“The songs themselves are challenging - melodically, harmonically, emotionally. They're complex and beautiful. I'm thoroughly enjoying practicing them,” she wrote, enthusiastically. “I'm used to playing piano while I sing (and used to singing my own material) and so there is an added challenge of not having that support right at my fingertips. On top of that, this is a brand new playing situation for me - I've not played with any of these musicians before. I love our rehearsals - it feels like a band!”

Lavoie said she gave him a new perspective on at least one of the tunes, “Old Country”.

“I don't really listen to lyrics all that much. When we rehearsed that, I asked Megan, 'What's Old Country about?' And she says, 'Oh, it's a really dark tune. It talks about the Grim Reaper and stuff like that. It's about this guy who hasn't done much with his life.' So, yes, these are great tunes, and having Megan sing them is going to give them a completely different kind of character.”

One instrument which will be missing from Saturday show is drums. Lavoie said – a deliberate choice. “The room is too small for drums and the rest of the band. It would be just too loud in there.”

On several of the bossa nova tunes, he will also be replacing the alto sax with flute.

This didn't require much rearrangement, he said. “We're basically playing them like they were recorded. Sometimes we might change tempo a little bit, bring it down a little bit, but other than that, most of the tunes are going to be played pretty well like they were played on the albums.”

This won't be the last time Lavoie is hoping to play from Cannonball Adderley's songbook. He said he'd like to play the songs again in a larger space, with a full quintet including a drummer and a trumpeter.

Lavoie said the biggest challenge in this concert for him was playing alto, and not sounding like a tenor saxophone on alto. “I can do that, but I need to be aware of it, because I'm a tenor saxophone player first and foremost. I played about eight years of alto a lot between 1984 and 1993. But after starting working at Canada Council I had to decide, well, I don't have five hours a day to practice, I have to concentrate, because I also play soprano and tenor and flute. I decided to concentrate only on flute and tenor, and the other saxes I would just pick up if I had a gig or something.”

But in teaching high school students in the last two years, “I play alto every week, all the time. And it's my best saxophone, I have a vintage alto saxophone, which is the envy of everybody who tries it. It's a Selmer. It was made around 1957, and it sounds just amazing. People will be surprised to hear me. People who haven't heard me play alto, will be 'Omigod!' ”

“I know that music so well, and I hear it really, really in my soul, so it's going to work out pretty good because I just know the music. Even when I see my students, I can tell when they listen to certain things and their sound changes and their approach changes because they've been listening to certain things. So for me, it's music that I've been listening to for a long time.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Rene Lavoie presents his Tribute to Cannonball Adderley at GigSpace on Saturday, February 27, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20.

See OttawaJazzScene.ca's review of René Lavoie's duo with Miguel de Armas at Folkrum last fall, and our video of Los Gringos in action: