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Gaby Warren: a jazz fanatic steps to the other side of the footlights

Update: See our review and photos of of Gaby Warren's Ottawa CD release concert.

Despite his 40-year career in the Canadian foreign service, Gaby Warren has been an integral part of Ottawa's jazz scene since the early 1980s. He's served as the vice-president of the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and a JazzWorks jam coordinator. In 2005, the Ottawa Jazz Festival gave Warren its Award of Distinction for his commitment to jazz in Ottawa-Gatineau.

The inside of Gaby Warren's CD, Reflections of a Jazz Fanatic. Importantly to Warren, it has liner notes.

He's also one of the biggest jazz fans in town – not uncritically, by any means – but with a deep appreciation of many types of jazz. You frequently see him at concerts and clubs around Ottawa.

Talking to Warren – and he's always delighted to do so – is an education in itself. Partly courtesy of his travels for the government and expertise in issues related to the United Nations, he's seen more influential jazz musicians in concert than almost anyone. He also has an impressive CD habit, and these days, he's listening to live concerts from Smalls in NYC over the Internet.

But his deepest love is for Afro-Cuban jazz, courtesy of a stint in the Canadian embassy in Cuba in the mid-1960s. The result: Warren and Cuba had far more impact on each other than could ever have been predicted, including bringing music to renowned musicians like Chucho Valdès and Paquito D'Rivera.

Now Warren has stepped to the other side of the footlights. After 16 years of studying jazz vocals and 8 years of music theory lessons, he's released a CD. It's effectively his musical memoirs, playing hommage to the styles of jazz he loves, and backed by some fine musicians from Ottawa and Toronto. They include veteran Toronto saxophonist Kirk MacDonald, and the Geggie Trio (John Geggie on bass, Nancy Walker on piano, and Nick Fraser on drums) well-known for their decade-long run as the house band for the jams at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and much more as individual jazz musicians in Ottawa and Toronto.

The CD's official release is at a concert in Ottawa this Tuesday (May 21) at the NAC Fourth Stage, and at The Rex Jazz Club in Toronto on June 3.

It's entitled Reflections of a Jazz Fanatic, and that's exactly how Warren refers to himself. He makes no secret of how much he loves the music.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor interviewed Warren a week before his concert, in an extended, free-flowing interview about how he was introduced to jazz, his adventures in Cuba, what types of jazz he loves, how he started singing, and about the album itself. We're releasing it as a podcast, and have included some excerpts from the podcast below.

Listen to the full interview [1h09]

1. A jazz fanatic?

Listen to this section [3:31]

2. The making of a jazz fan

Listen to this section [10:37]

“One fellow that would advise me [buying records] was a fellow of the New Jazz Society of Toronto and he was one of the organizers of the famous Jazz at Massey Hall Concert in May 1953. Even though I did not really realize its significance, I attended that concert with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach So I really lucked in on that. But them I realized what I had been missing in the 1940s, so I started to go back and piece together the bebop movement in the 40s to bring me up to date.

And ever since then, I'd say that all of my and more of my disposable income than should have been spent on this has gone towards, first LPs, then CDs and also concert tickets. I was an only child, and I would take off the wrappers of the LPs and smuggle them into the house.”

“I could hardly wait till each new Blue Note LP came out. ... I would take holidays in New York, but I would even go to the Blue Note offices and say “Don't you have anything new, that hasn't been released yet?”

“In the design of my CD, we've tried to capture that feeling of an Impulse or Blue Note LP.”

3. A Cuban odyssey

Listen to this section [15:40]

"Very often the first place [the Foreign Service] sends a bachelor, one finds one's spouse there, and luckily they sent me to Cuba just after the Missile Crisis. I arrived in April; June 9, 1963, I went to a party, and met my wife, and then it's worked out very well, and I retain a great interest in Afro-Cuban music and Afro-Cuban jazz."

Had you heard Cuban jazz before you were posted to Havana?
"Yes, because it was one important aspect of jazz... But actually to experience it and being friends in Cuba ... they were cut off in those days. Jazz was a semi-subversive activity, and so I was friends of a lot of classical musicians and jazz musicians and would hold open houses with my LPs, so that's when I became friends of Chucho Valdès and Paquito D'Rivera. He was only 15!

But of course they weren't famous then. It was, I would say, 15 years later, when Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie made the jazz cruise to Cuba, that I suddenly started to hear about my friends as part of the group Irakere."

"I guess jazz was considered semi-subversive because it was regarded as an American creation. And to keep up, one had to listen to it on the Voice of America [radio station]: Willis Conover and the Voice of [America] Jazz [Hour]. And so, therefore, it was rather important when I arrived with my complete record collection. When I arrived I was in the middle of converting from hi-fi to stereo. And I thought both in my classical collection and in my jazz collection, well, I could re-buy everything in stereo (of course, that's never the case). And my friends were cut off. So I really left my whole hi-fi collection in Cuba. But it was fun. I even gave a couple lectures at the University of Havana on modern jazz complete with playing excerpts. But one thing I don't think I've ever divulged ..."

I have never escaped Cuba. That's an important part of my life.

What were the Cuban musicians particularly looking for?
"It was the new developments. I was known: Chucho says I'm the person that for him brought the music of McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Andrew Hill. Normally they mention musicians like that: the more cutting-edge stuff. They knew the other stuff. ...

"[Chucho] was a fantastic pianist even then. He would have these little gigs in the odd grotto in Havana or I can remember once at a union concert in a factory. We would sometimes have jam sessions. I was listening: I wasn't thinking of singing in those days."

Was it possible to keep up your contacts in Cuba after you left?
"Luckily, one by one, they all left [Cuba] – my best contacts. So it was really quite emotional for me the first time I got together with Paquito D'Rivera in person. ...

In the mid-1980s, I played a role in the programming of the Ottawa Jazz Festival, so we were able to start the Latin jazz tradition at the 1985 festival. We organized a concert in the Opera of the NAC that had in the first half, Mongo Santamaria's group and in the second half, Paquito D'Rivera's group. I was able to MC that concert, so I was in 7th Heaven, and afterwards a friend opened his restaurant and we had a great party.

Now for Chucho Valdès, I didn't get together with him until a number of years later I think first in Toronto and then it was great two or three years ago when he was at our festival in Ottawa, and of course I'm very happy that he'll be here this summer at the festival. I was in Toronto at Koerner Hall in the autumn when he appeared with Jane Bunnett, and I was able to not only speak to him after the concert, but I was able to give him an advance copy of my CD."

4. Getting involved in the Ottawa jazz scene

Listen to this section [4:27]

5. I should sing

Listen to this section [5:40]

"I'm trying to think of when I got the idea that I should sing. Let's say it was 16 years ago? I was in semi-retirement and thinking ahead of retirement, and I had this idea that maybe I should take up the tenor saxophone. And then I said, “God, I know how the tenor saxophone should be played. I'd probably have to woodshed for five years before even showing up at a jam session!” But as far as being a vocalist, I know the repertoire. I know the Great American Songbook. I know the jazz originals. And at least if I start singing, I can do something right away! So then I had to decide who should be my teacher. If you're going to take lessons, you want to like the way your teacher sings. Well, when Tena Palmer told me that she was planning on coming from Montreal to Ottawa maybe once a month to give lessons, I said, 'Please sign me up!' ”

"Even doing the CD in a way was like a jam session, of course using such good musicians that I don't have to worry. It's the fact that I'm suddenly being backed by good musicians wanting to hear what they're going to do, which is going to put ideas in my mind, especially if I'm going to do some improvised parts."

6. Making the album

Listen to this section [10:21]

So why did you decide to make the album?
Let's say, 16 years of studying jazz vocalism, 8 years studying music theory – of course you have to have a goal! And I guess a goal was to get down in a CD the various aspects of jazz that I'm still passionate about. As time has gone on, I've mentioned this to all my cronies, and not only that, for the last four or five years I've been actually saying what the title would be: Reflections of a Jazz Fanatic. So it was reaching the point that I better do something or lose all credibility. ... But as time went on, I have a number of friends in Foreign Affairs et cetera, who have published or are writing their memoirs, and then I felt, maybe this is like my memoirs but in one important aspect of my life, so I wanted to give the flavour of that aspect of my life."

"The instrumentation I always wanted was the instrumentation of the classic John Coltrane Quartet: tenor sax (occasionally soprano sax), and the trio [piano, bass, and drums]. So I wasn't going to introduce a guitar -- I have nothing against guitar, I like the guitar when it's well played. But I was just going to go for, in effect, the classic Coltrane Quartet. And I wanted to have a saxophonist whose model was John Coltrane.

Then I was also wanted a certain element of spirituality. Because to me when I look back on what are my desert island discs, on so many of them, there is that element of spirituality. So I was trying for that. And I wanted a pianist that I felt was able to achieve that element of spirituality by cutting through to the essence. And I've long admired Nancy Walker for her ability to do that. For example, she and I decided for my love song to my wife – although the title, you might wonder if it's a love song but when you hear the lyrics you know it is – "Life Without You", that it's just Nancy Walker and me."

7. The musicians

Listen to this section [15:24]

So was it a coincidence that the core rhythm section on this CD was the John Geggie Trio?
The three of them and Kirk MacDonald I regard as superb musicians but I also like them as friends and human beings. And this was important to have the right atmosphere, which was also facilitated by having Ross Murray as the sound person and by having my close associate Rob Frayne as my co-producer."

On the first song in the album, "Singing in the Shower Blues":
"
When I'm in the shower like so many other people, I'm singing. And what I found is, I'd go into the shower singing something, I would start to run variations of it, you know, improvising. And then very often I'd get something that sounded distinctive to me – it might be the basis for a tune. But I have to remember it! So then I go running out of the shower and dripping across the floor, getting to my keyboard to jot it down before I forget it. So that [song] comes from real life!"

"My two years in Cuba, being married for so many years to a Cuban, I have never escaped Cuba. That's an important part of my life. So I wanted to put together my, I called it, three-part “Cuban Fantasy” on that. I start with a poem which had been dedicated to me by an important Cuban-American poet and art critic, which had a bit of the theme of me in Cuba."

"My anthem, since becoming a jazz fan, has probably been Horace Silver's “Nica's Dream”. The second Horace Silver tune, “Gloria”, was on probably his last album, in about 1999, Jazz has a Sense of Humor. He provided his lyrics, but it was an instrumental CD. I've never heard anybody sing it!"

8. Being on the other side of the footlights

Listen to this section [1:56]

You've been at so many concerts at the Fourth Stage as an audience member. What will it be like to be on the other side of the footlights?
"Thrilling, I hope. Because I have been one of those who have been spreading the reputation of the Fourth Stage as one of the best venues for intimate types of music and other forms of the arts in North America. And so really, to be doing this under perfect conditions: I've never experienced that before. Perfect conditions? Never. I'm used to a jam session type of environment. So I hope to be positively energized. Also still enthralled to hear what comes out of the musicians, and I like to keep my ears open to be able to react to it."

9. What's next

Listen to this section [1:53]