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Capital Vox remembers Dave Brubeck through both his words and music

Elise Letourneau ©Brett Delmage, 2012Dave Brubeck ©Brett Delmage, 2007

Capital Vox will celebrate a less-known side of Dave Brubeck at its opening season concert Saturday, with both choral pieces and solo piano music written by the late, renowned jazz pianist and composer.

The concert will be only a few days short of the first anniversary of Brubeck's death (December 5, 2012, just before his 92nd birthday). The Ottawa community jazz choir wanted to pay tribute to him, said director Elise Letourneau, by exploring the compositions he wrote for choir and voice.

But the piano won't be forgotten, either: the choir will be accompanied by pianist Sally Robinson, and keyboard master Brian Browne will perform solo in the middle of each set.

Brubeck is not usually associated with choral music, Letourneau said; most people have never heard the part of Brubeck's repertoire that Capital Vox will present.

In fact, up to about three years ago, she only knew of Brubeck's instrumental jazz – and then she discovered the choral compositions.

“I thought: this is really cool! And the more I looked the more I found. This wasn't just one or two choral pieces he wrote. He wrote a lot of music for choir. We're programming a whole concert of it, but there's probably a whole 'nother concert of Brubeck material that we didn't do, that we could. And then on top of that, he wrote a few Masses and music like that as well.”

She described the compositions as “masterful – deep, soulful, complex, demonstrating musical influences beyond standard/traditional jazz.”

Some of accompanying texts (lyrics) were written by Brubeck's wife Iola, who also wrote lyrics for some of his jazz pieces. Others refer to poems by Wendell Berry or Langston Hughes. And, surprisingly, some Brubeck wrote himself. Letourneau described the texts as “alternately meaningful and humorous”.

A foot in the classical and a foot in the jazz

The music “definitely has a foot in the classical and a foot in the jazz,” she said. “And even sometimes the lyrics address that. There's this one piece, for example, that we're doing called 'Two Churches'. He was envisioning like standing at a crossroads, where you could hear the contemporary gospel coming out of one church and the classical coming out of the other church, and he writes about that. And he actually meshes them in the music in a very cool way.”

It also covers both religious and secular themes. In the 17-odd pieces Capital Vox is presenting, “it's about half and half. Some of the stuff, you can hear how it's based on hymns, or you can hear how it's addressing something that's bigger than us. But then other things ... there's one that simply addresses the chaos of Christmas, for example. Often there's a sense of fun in them.

“Some of the texts that he wrote, are very thoughtful. Some of them are – gee, I wonder if some of this was related to a crazy Christmas that he experienced?”

The set list will include several Christmas pieces, Letourneau said. One that she and the choir have had fun rehearsing is an arrangement Brubeck did of “We Three Kings”, which is “just really bright and energetic. Both the choir and I enjoy doing that a lot.”

Aside from Paul Desmond's “Take Five”, which has become inexorably associated with Brubeck, all the pieces in the show are by Brubeck. Letourneau said the list doesn't include any of his full, extended works, such as a Mass, but some are taken from larger works.

“For example, his I Dream a World, we're doing the chorale from that. We're doing his “Dream of Freedom” from the larger work, Hold Fast to Dreams. We're doing “To Us is Given” from his Pange Lingua Variations.”

Challenging music which excited the choir

She said she started with about 40 to 50 scores, and then looked for music that was “reasonably do-able in the time that we had for a community choir. Also I was looking for a combination of things that were poetic, things that were tongue-in-cheek, things that were seasonal, and the varying textures.”

Letourneau said she didn't need make any significant changes to the music for the performance, although she reassigned voices in a few places when the choir didn't have enough voices to cover a section.

“Everything is in the spirit of what he intended, I believe. It was interesting music to work with. It's challenging music!”

The challenges include “the density of the harmony. There's lots of syncopation, of course, as is true in any jazz chart. But he also did some interesting things with hemiola (an alteration in rhythm) and he wrote some thick harmony.”

Capital Vox is now in its seventh year, and Letourneau said it could not have done “a concert like this our first or second season. I also think that the membership is more willing to tackle more challenging material. They were very excited about this.”

Several members have been in the choir for most of its lifetime, and she expected that that experience helped them “in terms of interpreting things that are idiomatic to vocal jazz”. She said that her own experience over the last few years writing award-winning choral music had helped her make “better-informed trade-offs [as a conductor] than I would have if I didn't do both.”

Once in town, once in the valley

The concert will be held Saturday, in the downstairs hall at St. Brigid's in Lowertown. But it will also be repeated in Almonte the following Friday, in a concert organized by the JazzNhouse series. The Almonte concert will be slightly shorter, Letourneau said, so the choir will repeat most, but not necessarily all, the selections.

She said the choir was happy to have a second opportunity to perform the music for a different audience because the music “doesn't get performed a whole lot from what I can tell. I've not seen it performed it in Ottawa before. And the choir invested a lot of resources in terms of acquiring the scores, as well as the time spent learning the material. And we thought: let's do it twice!”

  – Alayne McGregor

Capital Vox presents Remembering Dave Brubeck in Ottawa on November 30, and in Almonte on December 6.