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David Braid: uncovering music

David Braid. photo by Jimmy Katz"I'm really interested in the engaging process of music, like how memory works with music and what happens in the psychology of a listener when they listen to a piece of  music. How can I use a familiar strand (such as "Giant Steps") and manipulate that to my advantage?

"I look at a composition much like how a director directs a film: taking into consideration people's expectations, the timing of events, the familiar vs. the unfamiliar." – David Braid (Toronto Star, 2007)

Over the last decade, David Braid has established himself as one of the best jazz pianists in Canada (National Jazz Awards Jazz Pianist of the Year, 2009), as well as an award-winning composer (SOCAN Composer of the Year, 2007). He won a JUNO award for Traditional Jazz Album of the Year in 2006, and has been nominated four times more for Junos.

In addition to teaching music at the University of Toronto, he plays with some of the best Toronto jazz musicians: Phil Nimmons, Mike Murley, Jim Vivian, Tara Davidson, Ian Froman, Matt Brubeck, Kelly Jefferson, Terry Clarke, Steve Wallace, William Carn, and many more.

Braid has also collaborated with traditional musicians from China and India. And he has appeared as a soloist with Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Northumberland Orchestra, as well as composing a cello concerto for one of the world's leading cellists in contemporary classical music. Recently, he released an album with the Canadian Brass,  containing his compositions for brass quintet.

His latest project is quite different. It's him alone, in a solo piano project. And at Café Paradiso on Saturday March 12, he will be releasing and playing from the resulting CD, called Verge. Braid will also teach a masterclass at Carleton University on Saturday morning.

OttawaJazzScene.ca asked Braid, via email, to explain what listeners can expect to hear on Saturday.

OttawaJazzScene.ca (OJS): What inspired a solo album at this point in your career? Were some of the compositions originally written for larger groups and then rearranged for piano alone? Were any of the tracks written specifically for this project?

David Braid: With the exception of "Reverence" (which I recorded on Vivid), and "Interior Castles" (which I recorded on Spirit Dance), all the other pieces are solo piano compositions.  The main reason why I did a solo project was to look inward at myself and uncover the music which was most honest.

OJS: We're used to your compositions giving noticeable space to other instruments besides the piano. When you moved to piano-only for this CD, did it mean a more-stripped down sound, or extending your use of the piano's capabilities?

Braid: Thanks for making that observation.  You’re right. When I wrote and played in my larger groups, I preferred to give a lot of space for the other instrumentalists. Perhaps a minor reason for choosing to do a solo project was a desire to develop my music through the piano.

OJS: Which jazz musicians have influenced your compositions? Did anyone inspire you in particular for this solo album?

Braid: The album wasn’t inspired by any one individual – there were a lot of musicians involved directly or indirectly with the conception and development of each piece.  The sources of inspirations for each piece are different, and I’ll talk about them briefly at the performance when I introduce each composition.  

OJS: When you're playing solo, is there ever a time when you look up and just expect to see another musician across from you? Or does it free you to play as you will?

Braid: Playing solo is a more disciplined activity than playing with a group because there is more responsibility to actualize each element of the music – melody, harmony, rhythm, form, pulse..etc..  In this way, there is not the same kind of freedom as when I play with a group and can choose to play, or not.  The type of freedom I enjoy in a solo context is to be in full control of nuance when I’m performing my compositions.

OJS: How did your earlier studies in computer science affect your composing? Has it given you a different approach or discipline compared to musicians from a strictly arts background?

Braid: I’m not aware of any direct influence, but I’d say that my interest in programming and composing share the same source – perhaps a motivation towards creative activity.

OJS: In an interview with The Beijinger in 2009, you talked about how you experienced the "transformative" power of music from playing to audiences in China who hadn't been exposed to jazz. When the federal government decided to end the grants that helped Canadian musicians tour overseas (PromArt), you objected at the time. What do you think has been the result of those cuts two years on -- for you personally, and for Canadian musicians?

Braid: I’d have to collect more data before I’d start making any assertions about the results of those cuts.  However, one thing I can say for certain is that only highly commercial forms of music generate the finances that can fully support extensive international touring – otherwise, large amounts of  sponsorship are needed, such as when a Canadian orchestra tours overseas.   Since the most commercial forms of music aren’t necessarily the most steeped in culture or refined art, the PromArt program allowed the possibility for non highly commercialized artists to represent a Canadian voice on the world stage.   

Yes, I objected to the rationale of the Federal Government in cancelling PromArt.  Their whistle-blowing on the ideology of a select group of past PromArt recipients resulted in the cancellation of an entire program.  To me, an opinion about the worthiness of a candidate can only lead to a conclusion about the candidate, or the selection process which determines the candidate’s worthiness; it doesn’t follow to make a conclusion about the value an entire program.  

OJS: In the past, you've carefully chosen venues suited to your duo with Matt Brubeck on cello. What is your ideal environment for performing solo piano? When you're playing, do you react differently to a 'classical' audience that quietly sits still until the end, or one that's more responsive throughout the performance?

Braid: The ideal environment for me is having a great piano, good acoustics, and a listening audience.  I believe in the music I’m performing because of its connection to melody, harmony, rhythm and form – on that basis, I prefer the audience to decide how they will react to it.

Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's review of David Braid's Café Paradiso show