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The Stretch Orchestra makes jazz bend

For once, Kevin Breit at 6'5 tall (l) overshadows 6'8 tall Matt Brubeck (r). Yes, that's why they're called the Stretch Orchestra. ©Brett Delmage, 2011

It's fitting that the Stretch Orchestra won a Juno Award last year in the Instrumental category – because that's the Juno category that's least classifiable.

The group, which appears at the Ottawa Jazz Festival on Thursday, is simply difficult to categorize – even while having an unmistakable and cohesive sound of its own. Its music can range from groove, to blues, to ballads and waltzes, to pure free improv, to fiery guitar solos. Its instrumentation is unique: no one else combines guitars and mandolin with cello and with drums and waterphone – or necessarily plays those instruments in the same way!

And while its members – guitarist Kevin Breit, cellist Matt Brubeck, and percussionist Jesse Stewart – all have impeccable jazz credentials, they've also played regularly in a wide variety of other genres. Brubeck was in Kent Nagano's Berkeley Symphony Orchestra from 1989-2003, and has played on albums by Tom Waits, Sheryl Crow, and the Dixie Chicks; Breit tours and records regularly with Hugh Laurie in Laurie's New Orleans-influenced blues band, as well as backing up singers like Holly Cole or Rosanne Cash. Stewart is notable for his performances on instruments made of water, fire, ice, and stone, and his work in contemporary experimental music.

That experience in music other than jazz has given the group more freedom to experiment, Brubeck said. “I think that the stretchy elasticity, especially in terms of idiom and style I associate with this band, means that I can write something in the abstract and then think, 'How would this tune go if we were reggae?' In other words, I can just think kind of melodically, harmonically, whatever, at the piano, at the cello, and then later, maybe even through the trial and error of rehearsal, figure out what does this little form stylistically demand, and go from there. Other projects that I'm involved with are a little more neatly packaged stylistically as to what they are.”

But that variety may be very appropriate for the iPod generation, he said. “I teach people who don't own CDs. Or only know a couple tracks from this record and that record, because, they hear one thing they like and they download it, right? So I don't think this is any sort of intentional thing, but I think we do reflect people's really diverse listening interests in music.”

The three musicians met after Brubeck moved to southwestern Ontario in 2005. Given the American political situation at the time, “weighing everything out and thinking about our family”, he and his wife decided to make a go of it in Canada. “And then we ended up in Guelph because we started meeting people who were musicians based in Guelph, and of course coming to the Guelph Jazz Festival.” Breit also lived in that area, as did Stewart, who has since moved to Ottawa.

Brubeck met Stewart at a concert and suggested playing together. Stewart suggested adding in Breit, whom Brubeck knew from Lilith Fair, and it clicked.

The group was originally called Tallboys, so dubbed after a house concert in Elora, Stewart said. “We were standing there in the kitchen and several people who walked into the kitchen were like, 'Wow, you three guys are really tall. You know, I feel really short being in this room.' And so, we said, 'Hey! Maybe we could call the band Tallboys!'”

Stewart, at 6'3”, is the shortest member of the group; Breit is 6’4″, and Brubeck is 6'8”. Several years ago they changed the group name to Stretch Orchestra after realizing there were several other groups also called Tallboys.

They started playing together, particularly at the Guelph Jazz Festival to the point where they were sometimes referred to as the festival's “house band”, Stewart said. “I don't know if that's totally accurate, but it is true that we, as they say, enjoy a kind of close association.”

Their music came together through playing. Brubeck said. “I think originally it just sort of fit together through experimentation, jamming. All of us write music, and we would bring music to rehearsal to see if it would work, and some things did and some things didn't. And so it was an experimental process. The other thing of course is that Kevin is a great mandolin player as well, so that takes things in a completely different direction amongst all the other instruments that he plays. Sometimes he even sings once in a while, on a live show, anyway.”

“And so I think what really struck us was that the musical, the eclectic, the good eclectic set up of the band and the sort of diversity of musical experience was really a healthy brew for us. So we stuck with it that way.”

With only three members, the group is clearly not an “orchestra”, he said, but it produces a multifarity of sound far larger than its membership. “The idea is that it's just all these different sounds coming out of actually not that many different instruments.”

I think you have to bend your concept of jazz music a bit to fit the cello. But that's fine, too. I mean, if jazz can't bend, then it becomes historical art music, and I don't think any of us want that, right? – Matt Brubeck

Many people don't realize how much the cello can do as a jazz or rock instrument, he said. “It's actually one of the most versatile instruments you can play, it has all the versatility that the guitar does. It's a perfectly fine bass instrument, plays chords well, plays lead lines. It definitely can do all those things. I spent a lot of my life making it work in various sort of formats, you know?”

“If you're talking about jazz, I think you have to bend your concept of jazz music a bit to fit the cello. But that's fine, too. I mean, if jazz can't bend, then it becomes historical art music, and I don't think any of us want that, right?”

Those differences also attract Stewart. “I love the fact that both of those guys come from pretty diverse kind of musical backgrounds, and also somewhat different from my own. I think we all like the fact that there's nothing else really quite like it: a trio consisting of drums, guitar, and cello.”

But there's also a commonality: “I've always sensed a kind of kindred spirit in those guys in terms of their embrace of improvisation, certainly, but also their embrace of musical adventure.”

“I now live far away, and usually when I see those guys, we're playing music and we always have a really good time hanging out. So for me that's fundamentally important in that group, right? The music facilitates the friendship and the friendship facilitates the music.”

The group released its first album, Stretch Orchestra, in 2011, consisting of compositions by Brubeck and Breit. “We would play live shows and people would keep saying, 'Where's your CD?' And so it just became apparent to us that we needed to record and document this thing,” Brubeck said.

Most of the pieces had been written for other projects, he said, and hadn't worked there but really fit Stretch Orchestra. The exceptions included “El Jefe”, which he and Breit co-wrote one afternoon, a process he said was really fun and not done nearly enough by jazz musicians. “Beignet Bounce” was a piece new to the group before the recording session, which made the result “really fresh”.

“I'm Alrighty”, which closes the album, Brubeck wrote in honour of his late brother Michael. “That one basically was a piano improvisation that I decided, 'OK, I really like this enough that I'm going to set this down as a tune.' And honestly, they really hadn't done it before until the recording session. There was actually a couple things that everyone picked up really quickly. And the fact that we had a piano in the studio, and I originally conceived it as a piano piece. So we just rolled tape and there it was, it just came out really beautifully.”

And then the album won the Juno in Ottawa last April.

“Jesse and I were shocked,” Brubeck said. “We knew who all the other people were, and it was just like, you just don't expect these things. I'd been nominated before in 2007 and gone and not won in the category, and I said, 'Well, this is worth doing. It's only going to Ottawa. This will be fun.' And we won, and it was kind of funny because we were totally deer in the headlights at the time because we just had no inkling that we would win.”

What you'll hear in live performance, though, won't be a straight recounting of the album. “Very rarely do we play the same tune the same way twice,” Stewart said. In fact, “the thing that facilitates dialogue between all three of us is, in fact, our shared kind of interest in, and basis in, improvisation.”

“The foundation of a composition is improvisation, so I think it's always in there from the beginning,” Brubeck said. “You can spend years talking about composition and improvisation. They're interrelated processes as far as I'm concerned.”

At the orchestra's last show, in May in Guelph, he said, “we took the risky path of opening with something that we had no idea what we were going – it was like completely free improvisation, just to see what would happen. And it really worked out great. I think all of us have different orientations towards free improvisation. I think Jesse is the most dedicated to it, and I'm somewhere in the middle and Kevin is more sort of old-school structure, but he's also very good at it. I think it's good to have those different perspectives and comfort levels and artistic aspirations and all those things.”

Brubeck said he had written new material for the group's upcoming concerts, although he wasn't sure what the next step in its musical evolution would be.

“Kevin's very prolific and I'm pretty prolific, I'm doing a million other things. So yes, I think that there's new stuff, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jesse comes in with a conceptual idea. Jesse tends to be, as you know from his work and also from his visual art background, he thinks very conceptually about music. So he may tend to not have anything on paper, but to say, 'Hey, why don't we try this idea?'”

Stewart said he had just submitted a grant application last week to make a second Stretch Orchestra album: “I'm keeping my fingers crossed on that.”

He said he also hoped to do more international touring with the group, although there were obvious challenges with coordinating Brubeck's and Breit's busy schedules. “I just really love playing with them and hanging out with them, so hopefully we'll have opportunities to continue doing that.”

And what should you expect at the Ottawa concert? To enjoy it, Stewart says.

“Everybody always says that this is one of the most eclectic bands. It's kind of true: we move between and among quite a broad array of musical styles and traditions. I think people should expect to have a good time.

“For me, that's the other thing that really characterizes this band. I always have a good time playing with them. I mean, musically, but also, I mean, Kevin is a pretty hilarious guy. He's always cracking us up.”

    – Alayne McGregor

The Stretch Orchestra plays the Improv Invitational Series on the NAC Fourth Stage at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 27. It will also perform this summer at:

  • July 19 - Rose Theatre, Brampton, Ontario
  • July 20 - Waterloo Uptown Jazz Festival, Waterloo, Ontario
  • August 3 - Kaslo Jazz Festival, Kaslo, B.C.

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