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Jazz tuba advocate Keith Hartshorn-Walton blows his own horn

Keith Hartshorn-Walton is behind the tuba and he'll be out front at his concert on Friday ©Brett Delmage, 2017

Keith Hartshorn-Walton is an advocate for the jazz tuba, but he’ll blow his own horn when he leads a group for the first time in Ottawa this Friday. His unusual quartet will also feature John Geggie on double bass, Michel Delage on drums, and Peter Hum on keyboard.

Ottawa listeners have heard Hartshorn-Walton play front-line tuba in a variety of groups in the past year: in Safe Low Limit, with his wife and vocalist Mélanie Hartshorn-Walton, and in various jams. Some might be surprised that he is a multi-instrumentalist.

“Since moving to Ottawa, it's been my pleasure to just really focus on the tuba,” Hartshorn-Walton said. “But when I was living near Toronto I was playing a piano, tuba, bass, bass trombone, and organ in churches. So that's a lot of different instruments.”

Not to mention the tuba’s cousin, the sousaphone, which he plays in Mike Essoudry's Bank Street Bonbons.

Hartshorn-Walton says he’s always aspired to play the tuba as a front-line instrument.

“It's something I always wanted to do, from the very beginning almost, and having more and more chances to do it. But you have to make those chances happen – you can't wait around. No one's going to call you. You show them it's possible, and then they're interested.”

“That's what I did here. I started going to the jam sessions and playing a bit – and more projects started happening. But you always have to be a bit of an advocate for it. Any other tuba player has done that. They tend to be evangelizing about the tuba all the time,” he said, laughing.

As other musicians have been, he was introduced to his uncommon instrument of choice by an early school experience.

“I started piano at age 6. Then when it came time to start band, they wanted to put me originally on electric bass and drums but I wanted to take an instrument home like everybody else, so I took a tuba home. And I surprised my parents with it one day. That was in Grade 7. And I've never stopped.”

“It wasn't even something I took very seriously,” he said of his first teenage tuba playing. But by 2010, he had written the fascinating and highly readable 65-page academic paper, “The Changing Role of the Tuba in Jazz” for his Doctor of Music degree at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University.

“My first university degree was a classical degree: Bachelor of Music in Performance: Tuba. But even then I was finding ways to go play different stuff. Mostly just so I could be in the big band, I learned to play the bass trombone. I ended up playing in Gord Foote's band there, but I was playing in weird collaborations. I did a lot of stuff in the avant-garde scene when I was in Montreal: I played with the Ratchet Orchestra, I played with [Montreal saxophonist] Peter Turner – just things like that. Strange projects. I guess things that welcomed the tuba. Full-on improv like IMOO-type stuff.

“It was the Ratchet Orchestra that brought me in to do more combination written and improvised things, that Nick Caloia does in Montreal.”

One major influence was the leading American jazz tubist and baritone player Howard Johnson, whom he met when Johnson visited Montreal. Johnson is a pioneer of melodic jazz tuba playing and improvisation.

“He was playing bari sax in a duet with Charles Papasoff. And I went to see his show, and then I asked him for a lesson, and he agreed to meet with me at McGill the next day. And we worked for two hours. He didn't even want to charge me anything. He just said, ‘Go buy my albums.’ And we were in contact ever since.

“I got a picture of him holding our oldest when she was a baby. He's been very kind, kind of like my mentor. Just ask questions or send recordings. And he's come up to Toronto a few times to play shows, and we'll get together.”

When Hartshorn-Walton moved to Ottawa in 2015, Johnson referred him to Paul Adjeleian, who owns Record Runner Rehearsal Studios and is enthusiastically presenting this week’s concert as part of the new Live @ Record Runner series.

Whatever I play comes out sounding like genius. Because they don’t expect much anyways so when I come in and play what I do play they say ‘oh, man, listen to that!’

    – Bob Stewart – pioneer of the use of the tuba as an alternative to the bass in more modern jazz styles, from Keith Hartshorn-Walton's doctoral thesis  The Changing Role of the Tuba in Jazz [2010]
[Tuba players] do benefit from lowered expectations a little bit. But I think that only gets you so far. Right? Because then you're just a gimmick. If you didn't have anything truly to say on the instrument, then people wouldn't want to keep playing with you.
   – Keith Hartshorn-Walton

It's a major step forward for Hartshorn-Walton. “I've been involved in wonderful projects here in town, but something I've wanted to do for a long time now is to get a group of sympathetic musicians together and just do a standard jazz date, but with me out front. So not playing bass, but just being out front like a sax player would or a trumpet player would.”

The upcoming concert germinated as Hartshorn-Walton played at local jams with the musicians who would become his quartet members: Michel Delage, John Geggie, and Peter Hum. His concert follows from those experiences.

“We all trust each others' playing. It's going to be like those spontaneous collaborations. I'm really looking forward to it.”

Double bassist John Geggie will bring classical performance experience to the concert, as will Hartshorn-Walton. Both can also both play in the low register, which presents both sonic opportunites and challenges.

“Bob Stewart [whose work has pioneered the use of the tuba as a modern bass instrument] had the most eloquent things to say about that, because Bob has done a lot of tuba-bass playing, and he speaks really well about why, when you put a tuba there, it's different. It's not just a brass bass. It does things differently. You can play like a bass, but you can also play like a horn, so you have this dual identity that you can capitalize on. And that's the way I've gone too over the years.

“The tuba and the bass will play in each others' way if you're not careful So that's one of the things that will be a challenge. So what you'll probably see me do when I play the melodies is stick to the higher registers just because it will cut through better.”

Playing with a tuba adds opportunities for bassists, Hartshorn-Walton said, and means they don’t have to play unaccompanied solos. “When there's a tuba in the band, that means I can play a bass line for them and that gives them a chance to experience that. It's a little different for them than just having everybody drop out, which is what usually happens.”

He said he was also looking forward to playing with Geggie, with whom he’s only played once before, and hearing him play bowed bass.

“This is going to be very exciting to see what John brings to the table. The joy of hearing each other and what we can do is going to come across, I think, at this concert.”

Stewart doesn’t feel that the tuba has anything to prove and isn’t impressed by tubists that he feels are trying too hard to show that they can play high and fast. He mentions one occasion in which he heard an ensemble of tubas and euphoniums play jazz in which the result, bebop on tubas, was simply “sad bebop”. He felt they were impostors, playing music they didn’t “really mean”, lacking in substance and authenticity. It’s a “battle that nobody is waging on them”.
   — from Keith Hartshorn-Walton’s doctoral thesis, The Changing Role of the Tuba in Jazz,  April 2010

The repertoire will include “tunes that are not hard to learn, so as to really focus on the improvising and the group playing ... a couple of Peter's originals and a bunch of other standards and stuff that I've played before or wanted to play in this context. Things that I think fit the tuba well or things where John and I can trade. Like I will do a little bit of bass playing – when he takes a solo, I might play a little bit of bass underneath him.,”

What should the audience be listening for in this concert?

“I want them to hear a wonderful, unique instrument, but also hear jazz, which can be played on anything really. I want them to hear great jazz and all that entails, which is just the communication and the improvising and the surprises.”

“The tuba has a huge range. It can play high, low, loud, soft, aggressive, it can be demure, it can be as delicate as you want, it can also be in your face. I think it's an instrument with a tremendous range.

At the end of the concert, Keith Hartshorn-Walton, the tuba player and advocate, wants listeners to walk away saying, “That’s a great instrument. I didn't know the tuba could do that!”

    – Brett Delmage

The Keith Hartshorn-Walton Quartet performs at the Record Runner Rehearsal Studios, Unit 6, 159 Colonnade Road South (between Prince of Wales Drive and Merivale Road) on Friday, February 24, at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7:00. Tickets are $20, and are available on the Record Runner website and at the door. The hall seats 35. OC Transpo route 86C stops by the building.

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