Percussionist Jesse Stewart vividly remembers the first time he met Toronto jazz musician and composer Jane Bunnett in person.
It was back in 1992 or '93, at the awards ceremony in Toronto for the Jazz Report Canadian jazz awards. Stewart was in high school, and had come with his band teacher. And in among all the jazz luminaries there, he got to sit at the same table as Bunnett, and they both received awards that night.
“The who's-who of Canadian jazz was in this room, and I thought, 'Wow! This is amazing.' I met Jane, and I was wet behind the ears and just 16. I remember it very clearly because I had been such a fan of her work. I remember when Spirits of Havana came out in the early 90s, and just thinking it was a really, really great album all the way around.”
Over more than 20 years, their paths have continued to cross and they've played together occasionally. But this weekend, Bunnett is up in Ottawa for a more sustained interaction with Stewart: a workshop Thursday afternoon, a rehearsal Thursday evening, a masterclass and two performances Friday, and a recording session on Saturday.
Bunnett plays both soprano sax and flute. Stewart said that “often I don't love jazz flute but I do when Jane plays it. It's killer. She's just an amazing musician.”
But he also likes “the fact that she knows the tradition and she's very steeped in jazz but has also worked with musicians coming from other musical and cultural backgrounds, notably with Cuban musicians but with others too.”
“She's really firmly rooted, but she's also really open and an exceptional improviser, as well as being a very solid (for lack of a better term) more straight-ahead jazz player. She also plays more free kind of stuff very well: she's worked with people like Paul Bley and Dewey Redman, and all kinds of people. And she always sounds like her, but she also always sounds really good. So I have a lot of respect for her as a musician.”
Bunnett and Stewart will be joined by Ottawa guitarist Roddy Ellias and bassist John Geggie. All four are notable improvisers, able to create music on the spot, and Stewart thought that would probably guide their Friday night shows.
Although, speaking on the Thursday morning, he really couldn't say exactly what the shows at GigSpace would sound like – which is “part of the excitement” for him.
She's really firmly rooted, but she's also really open and an exceptional improviser, as well as being a very solid more straight-ahead jazz player. She also plays more free kind of stuff very well: she's worked with people like Paul Bley and Dewey Redman, and all kinds of people. And she always sounds like her, but she also always sounds really good.
– Jesse Stewart
“I honestly don't know. I've written some tunes, but more and more I'm thinking we just go out on stage and just play. I don't really want to have music stands. I don't want people to be reading tunes. I've nothing against that, but sometimes when the focus is on the page, not on the music, that can be a drag. I know that wouldn't be the case with such great musicians as John and Roddy and Jane, but more and more I'm thinking we should just play and see where the music goes. I think I can say we likely won't be just doing standards but then again you never know where we'll end up.”
Stewart first met Geggie touring in the quintet led by Toronto baritone saxophone David Mott. Then, the first week after Stewart moved to Ottawa in 2008, Geggie emailed him and asked him to join a gig at Cafe Paradiso with him and Ellias, which was the first time Stewart met Ellias. All three have played together occasionally since – most recently at the Power of the Arts Forum last fall where they played mostly Ellias' compositions.
When Stewart invited Bunnett to perform in Ottawa, he had initially envisioned “just the two of us, but then I thought it would be nice to make it a quartet, especially based on my earlier experiences with John and Roddy.”
One thing that Stewart admires about Bunnett is her work with community groups and with people with special needs: for example with the KidsAbility Centre for Child Development in Guelph, and coordinating (with Larry Cramer) the KidsAbility Youth Ensemble performances at the Guelph Jazz Festival.
Stewart has also been working with people with developmental disabilities: “making music with a group of really interesting artists at a place called H'art of Ottawa.” On Thursday afternoon, he's invited Bunnett to come in as a special guest to that art studio.
On Friday afternoon, Bunnett will give a free masterclass working with students at Carleton University, which Stewart expected would include “concepts related to jazz improvisation. I wouldn't be surprised if she also talked about collaboration given the work she's done collaborating across musical and cultural boundaries.”
One of the quartet's projects for this weekend is recording a CD. The Friday night concerts at GigSpace will be recorded, and then they will be right back there Saturday morning for a more formal recording session. Their original recording studio plans fell through and “Marilee and Mark Alcorn came to the rescue, and said that we could leave our gear set up and come back on Saturday and record in the space during the day. So I sure appreciate that and it reaffirmed to me how lucky we are to have GigSpace in this city.”
The quartet doesn't have any specific future plans at this stage, he said, “but we'll see how the recording turns out. Down the road it would be nice to do more work together but on the immediate horizon we don't have any plans.”
– Alayne McGregor
Jane Bunnett performs in two shows with with Roddy Ellias, John Geggie, and Jesse Stewart at GigSpace, Friday, February 28, 2014 at 7 and 9 p.m.