Long-time Ottawa Citizen journalist, jazz writer, critic and jazz musician Peter Hum releases his own first CD, A Boy's Journey, this week. The CD passed our first test with high marks: we carefully listened to it three times in a short period yet wouldn't mind hearing it again. And we're looking forward to hearing the music performed live.
Peter is usually the one to ask jazz musicians the questions ("Five questions" in his blog, Jazzblog.ca). So it was our pleasure to ask him the questions for a change and to give him the opportunity to talk about his work. Between writing music and writing articles, Peter kindly took time to write responses to OttawaJazzScene.ca publisher Brett Delmage's questions about the creation of A Boy's Journey, the interactions between being a jazz journalist and a jazz musician, and more.
OttawaJazzScene: How do you maintain your own artistic voice or direction when you are following, critically reviewing, and writing about many jazz musicians on a regular basis?
Peter Hum: Many musicians that I know are voracious listeners. They're always checking out lots of music. I just happen to write my thoughts down and publish them. So maybe I'm not that different.
I definitely regard all the listening and writing I've done over the years, and especially in the last three years, as beneficial to the music I've made. Sometimes I think that blogging for me might even take the place of practicing or composing daily – although I'm probably kidding myself.
As for my voice and direction, lately I've been thinking that those things, such as they are, have not really diverted that much from what they were when I began loving jazz all those years ago. I've just heard more music and I know a few more things and can do more things.
OJS: Are you able to just enjoy a concert or album for its emotional appeal and feel only, or do you find yourself starting to analyze or critique?
Peter Hum: The analysis/critiquing stuff is very second-nature to me now, but I can turn it off, or at least prevent myself from letting it take over my response to the music.
And while I generally regret having to review certain concerts to a very tight deadline (for the newspaper, that first deadline for copy is 10 p.m., which makes for a lot of pressure), I do take satisfaction from reviews that I think are accurate and well-written. The blog can be good for those next-day, less-instantaneous reviews.
OJS: Would you have ever liked to have lived in NYC? Do you think that would have affected your music?
Peter Hum: If we're speaking about a hypothetical fantasy-life, then the answer is yes, absolutely, to both questions.
For comparison's sake, the closest experience I had to being immersed in jazz in a city where that could meaningfully be done would be the three years (1986-1989) that I spent in Montreal. While I wasn't studying jazz at McGill (I was getting a Master's degree in English), I was playing in university jazz combos, going to jam sessions and checking out live jazz all the time, with peers that included people like pianists Steve Amirault and John Stetch, saxophonists Mike Allen and Bobby Hsu, bassists Alec Walkington and Mike Downes, and the drummers Dave Laing, Dave Robbins and Ted Warren. That was a really crucial and enjoyable time for me musically.
But at the same time, music was on the side, and when I left Montreal, it wasn't to become a musician, but to take steps to become a journalist. It just so happened that I saw the poster for the University of Western Ontario's journalism school in the hallway of the McGill music building.
Getting back to your question, if I had moved to New York and tried to pursue music — as John Stetch did, and Steve Amirault did, for example — it would have required a bigger commitment to music than I had at the time.
And while I have in the past had small twinges about “what if,” I'm more than content with the life I've had thanks to journalism. I've met and learned about so many people in all walks of life, I've worked with fantastic colleagues, I've met many of my jazz heroes — Herbie Hancock, Fred Hersch, Marc Copland — and most importantly, I met my wife because of the career I chose.
OJS: You call yourself "largely self-taught." Why did you choose to go this route rather than attend music school? What challenges do you face from this and what are the advantages of this approach?
Peter Hum: While two close friends of mine from high school — Alec Walkington, who plays bass in Montreal and is on my CD, and saxophonist Dan Rowswell — went on to pursue music at St. Francis Xavier University, I decided to pursue English instead, and I went to Queen's University. I just wasn't willing to commit that much to music, and I did enjoy my English studies and writing in general. Certainly all those essays and reading must have helped me get where I am today professionally. Meanwhile, I played in the university big band, learned a lot from the Kingston drummer Chris McCann, and even got to play with Sonny Greenwich, Phil Nimmons and Reg Schwager when they came through town.
But at least partly because of my lack of a formal, rigorous musical education, I have gaps in my musical knowledge and abilities. I'm a really lousy music reader, for one thing, and I certainly could have benefited from more time spent practicing even the most rudimentary things, as well as some meaningful time with a good teacher. Over the years, I've tried to address these shortcomings as best I could, on my own, but I could use more self-discipline in this regard.
I hope that whatever advances I've made thanks to listening to innumerable hours of jazz and exploring music at the piano by myself are honest and personal, but I don't think there's an advantage to the path I took. I think that if you're of the right frame of mind, you'll grow faster with peers and in a scene that will nourish you artistically.
OJS: Which role was more important for you on this album: as a pianist or as a composer? And which role did you enjoy more?
I don't think one role was more important than the other. I can say, however, that I was determined to put a disc of all originals rather than cover a standard or two or three in the mix. Don't get me wrong – I absolutely love playing jazz standards, and in fact I'm probably better at playing them than my own material. But I wanted to — for better or worse — be represented by my compositions as well as my playing, because the tunes are just another aspect of my musical self. I know John Geggie feels the same way about presenting originals on recordings.
OJS: How has your music been influenced by seeing musicians perform live as compared to listening to their CDs?
Well, seeing musicians perform really is the total, technicolour experience, compared to hearing the music on a recording. What's impressed me on seeing people like Sonny Rollins, Woody Shaw, Dave Liebman, Keith Jarrett, Sonny Greenwich and Kevin Dean in my early days of jazz-loving, as well as Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade more recently, is the depth of their music and the sense of commitment they convey when they perform. They set really powerful examples with respect to the intensity and passion involved in making music.
OJS: Who are some of the musicians or recordings that led the way for you in creating this CD?
In terms of the all the logistical steps involved in making a CD, I had very helpful conversations with John Geggie and Mike Essoudry, among others. Ross Murray, who recorded the music, offered a lot of guidance all through the process too.
In terms of the material on the disc, some of my newer tunes were written after I'd done some close listening to the Brian Blade Fellowship. I really admire how Brian and the band's pianist, Jon Cowherd, craft tunes with long structures and how they arrange. Beyond that, I am nuts about that band — which I saw in New York in the summer of 2008 — because of the experience it creates for listeners with its music. Those guys really lift people up.
That said, beyond the most basic instructions, I didn't tell the guys how to play, or that we were going for this or that kind of vibe. I valued their own input and creativity too much to do that.
OJS: What process did you go through in composing the music for this CD?
Most of the tunes were composed before I had even dreamed of making a disc. But many tunes were refined in the second half of 2008, after I received a grant from the City of Ottawa and before the December 2008 recording session. I also wrote a few tunes that didn't make it onto the CD.
The newer tunes — Take the High Road, Three Wishes, Midway — were written with the disc in mind, and I like the fact that the similar harmonic qualities of those tunes are at the beginning, middle and end of the disc. Most of the tunes, old and new, grew from very small ideas, and some took a long time of mucking about until I was happy, while others came into place more clearly.
Both the recording session and a Unitarian Congregation concert I did a month earlier, in November 2008, motivated me to bear down and compose. Similarly, I've been composing and tweaking tunes over the last few weeks in advance of the CD release gig on Saturday night and a Radio-Canada concert that will be recorded on Sunday afternoon.
OJS: How does the solitary activity of writing/reviewing other people's music compare to writing original music for your own group ?
The major difference is a real-world one. I can fit writing about music around the other duties of my workday, while I have to pursue my music as an extra-curricular activity – on weekends, at night or in the morning. I have a young family too, so there are a lot of demands on my time.
Other than that, I have much more practice writing after 20 years as a professional journalist. Getting blocked is rarely an issue and I just crank it out – like everyone else I work with.
It would probably be good if I regarded composing in a similar way, but I find the bar is higher for me in terms of getting motivated. Having events and deadlines looming helps.
OJS: How did you pick the musicians/instrumentation for this group?
The most important thing is that these guys are all dear friends. I go back with all of them, and I consider myself really blessed that they were willing and able to do the recording.
I played with Alec Walkington in the early 1980s when we were teenagers growing up in Nepean. I was the best man at his wedding. I played with Ted in Montreal in the late 1980s when we were at McGill. I played with Kenji in the early 1990s -- he's about 10 years younger than I am -- and he was coming up in Ottawa. A decade ago, I stayed with Kenji in New York during a very fun trip, and we were able to hang out a bit there some years later too. I've played with Nathan since about 2003, when he was 14 years old, I think. He sought me out, and I watched him become monstrously good very quickly.
Of course, they're all monstrously good, and very distinctive, players. But I hope that the relationships and histories I have with these guys are reflected in the feeling of the music that resulted when we went into the studio.
OJS: Why a quintet? Can you comment on your less frequent choice of two saxophonists (as opposed to sax & trumpet) and why you played both electric and acoustic pianos on the CD?
Peter Hum: I've always enjoyed playing in sextets and quintets. In the late 1980s, I led a sextet that played at the Montreal International Jazz Festival's competition. In the late 1990s, I had a steady gig with Charley Gordon's quintet, and more recently I had my quintet that I called Peter Hum's Big Buffet. I like the different sounds that everyone brings and how varied the music can get as a result of that. Also, I have always really liked accompanying and playing in the rhythm section.
As for the quintet on the CD, I wasn't thinking so much about specific instrumentation. I was thinking about the people. I just love how Nathan and Kenji play — that's all.
As for electric and acoustic pianos, I wanted to have both sounds on the disc for variety's sake, and I think the electric piano suits the groove tunes.
OJS: If you had to give up either writing about jazz, or writing jazz, which one would you continue, and why?
Peter Hum: Well, I do have a lot invested in both pursuits. I'm sure I'll one day retire from writing about jazz, though, while I can't see myself giving up playing the piano. Making music is a life-long joy.
A Boy's Journey is available as a digital download and physical CD at peterhum.bandcamp.com