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Jamie Baum and Jane Bunnett bring new, Indian-influenced music to life

Jamie Baum: her latest CD includes new ways of writing and improvising inspired by music from the Indian subcontinent. (photo by Vincent Soyez)

Jamie Baum is exploring new territory in her current Canadian tour, which reaches Ottawa on Saturday at GigSpace.

It's the first opportunity for the American jazz flute player to play with Jane Bunnett, her Canadian fellow flute player and longtime friend. It's also a release tour for her latest CD, which has taken her in new and original directions inspired by music from the Indian subcontinent.

“I really love Indian music and qawwali music,” Baum explained.

Jane Bunnett: The first show in the tour attracted a 'full house and a fantastic turnout – and the music is pretty adventuresome music. The crowd was really receptive; they loved it.' ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Several of the pieces on the album are directly inspired by performances by the late Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who was a singer of Qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music. Others, while staying within the jazz mainstream, reflect Baum's experiences performing in India and listening to music from there. That led her to “new ways of writing and improvising”, which she enthusiastically described.

The quintet's tour includes Kitchener-Waterloo, Toronto, Quebec City, Ottawa, and Kingston. OttawaJazzScene.ca spoke to Jane Bunnett the day after the first show in Waterloo, and she said that show attracted a “full house and a fantastic turnout – and the music is pretty adventuresome music. The crowd was really receptive. They loved it.”

Baum and Bunnett first met at a jazz convention in the 1990s, and have both been nominated in the same categories for Jazz Journalists Association Awards.

“So she would be there and I would be there, and we would start to bond and hang out. When she'd play in New York, I'd go hear her and we'd get a bite. When I was in Toronto, and even once in Montreal and she was there at the same time, we would just hang out,” Baum told OttawaJazzScene.ca.

“She's been in the Downbeat polls as I've been in the Downbeat polls. We have a lot of mutual friends in common, with people who have written about woodwinds,” Bunnett said. “I think originally the first person was a writer-journalist-radio guy in New York named Bob Bernotas, who said to me, 'Oh you've got to meet Jamie. You'd just get along great!' And sometimes that can be the worst thing somebody tells you: oh you guys will just get along great, and you end up like can't stand the person, right? Why did they say that? But we really did: we hit it off. And so we've been friends ever since and we keep in touch.”

Bunnett is “such a great musician, great flute player. I like what she's about musically. I've heard her so many times on her recordings and live,” Baum said. “Playing the flute is quite different than being a trumpet player or sax player. They get to play in big bands, next to other trumpet players and other sax players, both inspired and pushed to their best because they're next to each other. Of course, I get that when I play in my band with the other instrumentalists, but it's rare to be in a situation with another flute player.”

Baum is “one of the greatest jazz flute players out there. Really, really good,” Bunnett echoed. “She's a flute player who's really grounded in the tradition of jazz, so she's not just playing the flute, she has a great understanding of the jazz tradition. Her compositions are really interesting and very demanding for the player. It's challenging for me. I like to challenge myself, and I certainly am with this stuff. It's inspiring; she's got technique up the wazoo but she plays coming from a very deep place. She plays on an emotional level, which is really inspiring, because a lot of people who have great technique in jazz sometimes it's not moving. Last night, I was looking over at her a few times and going 'Wow! That was a really beautiful solo.' ”

They'd been discussing doing a project together, but hadn't been able to nail anything down, when Baum started planning her tours this fall for her new CD, In This Life. And she wanted to include this country: “I love coming to Canada. It's got great audiences, and it's been a lot of fun every time.”

Baum had toured in Canada several times, appearing at Cafe Paradiso in Ottawa in February, 2010 with NYC trumpeter Dave Smith, and March, 2011 with Montreal saxophonist Samuel Blais. Bunnett was last in Ottawa in December, 2011, guesting with the world music group Minor Empire, as well as with the three Cuban Piano Masters in April, 2010.

“I just thought, 'Well, Jane and I haven't quite come up with a project yet. Maybe I'll just see if she's around and she would like to do this.'”

Bunnett agreed. “I should have said, 'Send me the music first.' I didn't. I said, 'Yes, that would be great!'

And then I got the music and I said, 'Whoa! I've got some work here.' ”

Amazing opportunities playing with Indian musicians

While still clearly jazz, the music Baum has composed for this group has some less-common sources. The very first song on the CD is Baum's transcription and arrangement of a vocal improvisation done by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Baum said she was particularly influenced to create the music on the CD by five tours she undertook in South Asia between 2002 and 2009, fully or partially sponsored by the U.S. State Department. She travelled to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

As part of each tour, she said, the State Department would organize concerts, masterclasses, and workshops, and collaborative concerts with local musicians, in each city. In Delhi, they played with Hindustani classical musician V.M. Bhatt, and with Sandeep Das, who was the tabla player in the Yo‑Yo Ma Silk Road Ensemble. In Chennai, “we did a concert with a very famous percussionist, Karaikudi Mani. He was the guru, taught people like Jamey Haddad, who was a percussionist to Paul Simon. These really were the top people.”

In each city, “we would have time to rehearse with them. They would play some of our music, and we would learn some of theirs. There were often collaborative efforts where I had multiple opportunities to learn about the music and discuss it with them, so there were quite a few amazing opportunities.”

“If you're working with people that are really open and feel comfortable or want to think out of the box, or stretch themselves, or aren't afraid maybe to not be in their own comfort zone, then it can be a really interesting experience for both of you, because certainly every experience for me was amazing. I was happy to be there and happy to listen to the musicians.”

“Being there was a treat. Each situation was quite different. Some of the people that we were paired up with were perhaps more interested in having us meet on their ground than coming over and being on our ground. Some other people were really excited, and wanted to take a chance, and take a risk, and go outside of their comfort zone. Sometimes it was very much collaborative and other times it was a little bit less.”

If you're working with people that are really open and feel comfortable or want to think out of the box, or stretch themselves, or aren't afraid maybe to not be in their own comfort zone, then it can be a really interesting experience for both of you.
– Jamie Baum

Baum especially credited Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whom she likely first became aware of during her first Indian tour. “One of the things that was great was, if we were doing a clinic or something a lot of the local musicians would either give us CDs of people they thought we should check out or we would ask them, 'Who do you listen to? Who should we know about?' Sometimes we would go shopping in town and there'd be a CD store and somebody would take us in and say, 'Hey, check this out. Get this.' ”

Nusrat did several collaborative, crossover recordings with Western musicians like Peter Gabriel and Michael Brook. Those were Baum's first experience of his singing, but “that led me to more of his traditional recordings.” Both influenced the album, she said.

Nusrat had amazing technical skill, she said. “You can get that sense when you listen to him but then going and transcribing his vocal solo and you're just like, 'Oh my God. This guy's doing this at such a speed and such accuracy in terms of pitch and rhythm.'

“But it really comes down to, for me, something about the sound. When you put a recording of Coltrane on and the first minute you hear it you don't even have to hear the things that he's playing. You can identify his sound so quickly. Or Miles Davis or Pavarotti. I listened to Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. In two minutes I'm in tears. I think it's the same thing with Nusrat. There's just something about the sound. I know the sound. I don't just mean the sound, but just the whole encompassing quality of the feeling and the intent behind it. There's something just really amazing that moves you.”

She emphasized that her compositions were not directly taken from South Asian music.

“I have such great respect for the vast tradition of Indian music, and Pakistani music, and south Asian music. I'm not professing to have studied it deeply like a lot of people do, where they go to India and spend years studying that music. It's more about taking things from it that inspire me, and incorporating it in my music.”

It's always fun as a composer to play the music with different people because they bring something else to it. It makes it fresh.
– Jamie Baum

Another related inspiration was the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art, built in the former Barney's Department Store in New York City. Baum was asked to perform an acoustic concert there, and to write one piece for the concert based on a museum exhibit. On the day she visited, the specific exhibit she planned to see was closed, so instead she wrote “Inner Voices”, which is included on the CD.

“I live right in midtown Manhattan, right near Times Square. And so I decided to write a piece where I was leaving my apartment and walking to the museum and thing were getting more and more cacophonous and intense and crazy. Then you open the door to the museum and suddenly everything is calm and centered and lined up.”

Taking a leap of faith, with not quite all the funds

In This Life was Baum's first album as a solo leader since 2008's Solace. She wrote the pieces for it from 2009 to 2011, and recorded it in January, 2012, with a "septet plus": eleven musicians in total over all the tracks.

“I would have waited, but we had a number of gigs, some really great gigs, all around a three or four month period. We played at the Kennedy Center in New York. We played at Symphony Space in New York City. We played at Roulette [Theatre in Brooklyn]. We did a tour in Europe, and so the music was formed and brimming. I really felt like it was the right time to record, even though I didn't quite have the funds.”

“I took a leap of faith and felt like I had to do it at that time, and also I knew people were going to be going on tours. It's always so hard to get everybody together at the same time, so I just jumped at the opportunity and went in the studio and recorded it.”

The CD was released in October, 2013, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign to pay for the mixing and editing. The campaign was “a lot of work”, but she ended up with 150 contributors “and a lot of fans that I'd never met before, from other countries, and other states”.

Baum said she felt the CD was “a very collaborative effort. Even though it's all my music, I think the musicians all bring so much to the music.” Because of that, she didn't want her picture on the cover.

Instead, she picked a photograph showing light shining through clouds, by Dutch photographer Lilian van der Sanden . Baum found it by Googling “The most beautiful photo”; that photo was the first which showed up on Flickr.

“I looked at it and I thought, 'Oh my God. That's it.' Then I thought, 'You know what? I can't take the first photo. I've got to keep looking.' So I spent the next two hours looking at different photos, but I just kept coming back to it. The more I kept coming back to it, the more I kept thinking, 'This is it. This is really expressing what I feel the music is about.' I just felt like it really connected.”

Across Central Canada – except Montreal

For American dates earlier this month, Baum toured with the same musicians as on the CD. But for the Canadian dates, it will be an all-Canadian group aside from Baum: Bunnett, Montreal pianist Paul Shrofel, Toronto drummer Nick Fraser, tabla player Ravi Naimpally (in Toronto only), and ex-Montreal, now-NYC bassist Zack Lober. Lober played on the CD, and Baum had played with Shrofel and Fraser on past Canadian tours.

While Baum appreciated having Lober as an anchor who knew the music well, “it's always fun as a composer to play the music with different people because they bring something else to it. It makes it fresh.”

On the tour, Bunnett is playing mostly soprano saxophone (her other instrument), and said she was doing a lot of the parts originally written for trumpet. She is also doing “a couple things on flute”, playing alto flute and the concert B flute.

Most of the music which audiences will hear at the shows will be from In This Life, Baum said, but she will also include some new tunes that she'd written since the CD which she thought would fit this quintet's instrumentation. Bunnett will contribute a few tunes as well: “I was really interested to get to play some of her [music].”

In Ottawa, the quintet will also do a clinic at the Long & McQuade music store in Alta Vista, in the afternoon before the Saturday concert. “We'll probably play a little bit and maybe let people come and sit in or play or ask questions, talk about the music or improvising.”

While the quintet is playing in five cities in Central Canada, it's missing Montreal. That's directly related to the new and increased work permit fees surrounding foreign workers entering Canada which came into effect July 31. Bunnett said the Upstairs Club was originally part of the tour, but with the new fees, the owner decided to pull back for now from booking international musicians.

Bunnett described the fee as a “totally idiotic unfair rule”. Cross-border gigs are “how we artists thrive and we exist, and it actually increases our work on both sides [of the border].”

Baum said she would be continuing to play the music from the new CD in New York City this fall, followed by the NYC Winter Jazz Fest in January, and a possible tour of Italy.

She said she thought she would continue her explorations in Indian-influenced music.

“I love it and it's been a lot of fun. I think we've gotten such great feedback. As the band gets more gigs and people want to hear the music from the recording. I started feeling itchy to write new music, so I probably will.”

    – Alayne McGregor

The Jamie Baum Quintet featuring Jane Bunnett will appear at:

  • November 23: The Jazz Room, Waterloo, Ontario
  • November 27: Hugh's Room, Toronto, Ontario
  • November 28-29: Bar Sainte-Angèle, Quebec City, Quebec
  • November 30: GigSpace, Ottawa, Ontario
  • December 1: Kingston Jazz Society, St. Mark’s Church, Kingston, Ontario

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