Watch the OttawaJazzScene.ca video story about this show: Petr Cancura and Ian Tamblyn combine jazz, folk in satisfying Crossroads concert (video)
Two musicians. One is a jazz musician who spent the last decade in New York City. The other is a singer-songwriter who's spent more than 40 years writing about Canada and the natural world.
On Friday, November 20, Petr Cancura and Ian Tamblyn will combine those very different musical spaces and approaches at the National Arts Centre, in a jazz concert of Tamblyn's folk music.
It's a show the two Ottawa-area musicians have been working on since August – and it's taken them both well outside their normal comfort zones.
Talking to each of them a few days ago, they both still had a bit of a nervous tinge to their voices, but sounded excited as well.
“Ian and I have become friends for sure, and so that's an incredible thing in itself,” Cancura said. “And I think we've both really enjoyed it. It's scary – like both of us are stepping a bit out of our comfort zone to do this. That's the hard part. I think that's what takes the most effort and is the most nerve-wracking thing. But I also think we'll end up with something really fresh and exciting."
“I'm the guinea pig,” Tamblyn said. “I'm the one to see what the stretch is like. It's fun for me, but they're pushing me.”
Friday's concert is the first of three shows in Cancura's Crossroads series for NAC Presents, in which a jazz quartet led by him will play jazz arrangements of music by local singer-songwriters – with the full involvement of the songwriters.
Cancura said his musical passion “really is combining roots music and jazz”, which is what this series will allow him to do. He said he started developing the idea after discussions with NAC Presents producer Simone Deneau last fall, and after three or four months of work and research and further discussions with Deneau, they decided to put local singer-songwriters' music “in the context of jazz”.
“Part of what I like about folk music and roots music in general is the storytelling. Why I like to combine these two worlds is because that's what gives me goosebumps – the storytelling. And I think we can do that in jazz. And I always try to create a story, instrumentally."
“I love working with incredible improvisers because I think that's the strength of jazz. So putting that story-telling along with the rawness of jazz is a powerful thing. And it's something fresh.”
Besides Tamblyn, Cancura will also be collaborating with Lynn Miles on February 4, 2016, and Jeremy Fisher on April 7. With all three musicians, “I love what they do. So to get to play music in the way that I would like to play it and to work with them is a dream come true.”
Cancura said he picked Tamblyn because “Ian is a great story-teller and I really like his songs. And I like his delivery, and he's got the depth of character in the way he delivers his songs. And right away I could hear ideas when I was listening to Ian. Lynn Miles is a similar thing. She's one of my favourite songwriters in Ottawa, if not Canada. It's so easy to listen to Lynn, and the melodies she comes up with are just – they're going to be such a joy to work with! And Jeremy's got this youthful fire to him and he's a really smart musician and singer-songwriter. So I think it will open up a whole other set of ideas with him.”
Tamblyn chuckled when asked what his reaction was to the invitation. “I've been a songwriter and a soundtrack writer for most of my career. And there are jazz elements in my work. But I went, 'Oh. This is going to be exciting. And maybe an old dog can learn some new tricks.' ”
Performing at the NAC Fourth Stage on Friday will be Tamblyn on vocals, guitar, and piano; Cancura on saxophone; Roddy Ellias on guitar; John Geggie on double bass; and Montrealer Greg Ritchie on drums.
Ellias and Geggie have been integral to Ottawa's jazz scene for decades; Cancura and Ritchie just recently returned to Canada after living for many years in New York City, but both have deep roots and many connections here. Tamblyn has done occasional recording sessions with both Cancura and Geggie, but has not played before with Ellias or Ritchie.
If a song has a wilderness theme to it, I'll say I don't think a sax [is appropriate]. I see a saxophone by and large – particularly tenor and alto sax – as an urban instrument. And for me I can stretch, but I'm not going to stretch to having a saxophone player playing a song about Lake Superior. It's the same thing as when R. Murray Schafer – I think it's absolutely horrendous that he was blasting trumpets and saxophones on a lake as a tribute to the wilderness! No self-respecting animal would stay anywhere near the lake.
– Ian Tamblyn
Tamblyn has been performing since 1972. He received the Estelle Klein and Helen Verger Awards for his contributions to Canadian folk music, and was voted English Songwriter of the Year in 2010 by the Canadian Folk Music Awards. He's released 38 CDs of his own compositions, several of which were based on field recordings of natural or man-made sounds – and that doesn't even count his fourteen plays and over one hundred theatre soundtracks.
With that huge a repertoire, how did he and Cancura pick the music for the concert?
Tamblyn said he gave Cancura “a good swath” of his CDs going back as far as 1984-85 to listen to, and they both started picking songs from those.
“He chose some songs which I went 'Hmmm... I'm not sure about this.' But we've tried them out and it's worked.”
However, in some songs, “the arrangements are sacrosanct, and I go, 'I don't think so.' ”
Tamblyn suggested several songs he thought leaned towards a jazz setting: “I have a song called 'Apple Blossoms and Daffodils'; in my imagination, it's reminiscent of Django Reinhardt and his Jazz Hot period, so that seemed to be an obvious one. And there's a song called 'Rites of Passage' which is about an Ottawa sax player by the name of Normy Clarke, and that has kind of a blues base to it but has more of a jazz sensibility. Another one set in a cocktail bar about Fred Varley, a member of the Group of Seven, again that had a jazzy feel to it.”
Although Tamblyn has written instrumentals, “There's only one instrumental piece in all the songs so far. There are stretch points where it's going to be expanded by the band. And there's two songs where I'm not playing, [just singing]. I'm Michael Bublé in that case,” he said, laughing.
One of his signature songs is “North Vancouver Island Song”, a stream-of-consciousness chronicle of a bus trip from Nanaimo to Port Hardy. He described it as a “Doppler effect that you hear as something's going by”; it begins “In the deep green, the dark green, The grey poles and the mist shroud, Dark lakes, the snow caps, Gravel beds and the flyers race, Mountains spirits, the scarred land But the regrowth's coming back again, Coming back again, you bet I am!”
He said they'd perform it much like Jack Kerouac-style beat poetry, with him setting the tone on guitar and then the jazz musicians working off that groove and going further outside it.
Cancura said he looked at other folk-jazz collaborations, such as Joni Mitchell with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock; trumpeter Dave Douglas's 2012 CD with singer Aoife O'Donovan; and Willie Nelson with Wynton Marsalis.
Those records definitely gave him ideas, he said, “although in the end I think the most useful thing is to really treat each of Ian's songs as a story and try to create the vibe, from us, from the musicians that are involved, rather than trying to put it into some other formula that may or may not work.”
I think what's the hardest and most beautiful part of this project is trying to stay true to the songs the way these songwriters intended them, yet allowing the jazz musicians to really play and really dig in and really get to express themselves on these songs as well.
– Petr Cancura
The jazz arrangements for the songs have been a collaborative effort, Cancura said, with Ellias in particular contributing ideas.
“I'm really trying to create an environment where these strong improvisers that we have really get to play. I don't want the gig to sound like a back-up band to Ian. I want it to be an environment where we honour and really respect Ian's songs and let him sing, but then extend sections – which is not something you would do in folk music. Sometimes we write new sections or certainly open things up and we'll really let the band play. And then come back to the song.”
“I think what's the hardest and most beautiful part of this project is trying to stay true to the songs the way these songwriters intended them, yet allowing the jazz musicians to really play and really dig in and really get to express themselves on these songs as well. That's my goal in these.”
Tamblyn said there were times when he applied the brakes.
“If a song has a wilderness theme to it, I'll say I don't think a sax [is appropriate]. I see a saxophone by and large – particularly tenor and alto sax – as an urban instrument. And for me I can stretch, but I'm not going to stretch to having a saxophone player playing a song about Lake Superior. It's the same thing as when R. Murray Schafer – I think it's absolutely horrendous that he was blasting trumpets and saxophones on a lake as a tribute to the wilderness! No self-respecting animal would stay anywhere near the lake. To me it's just stupid. That's why, whenever I did my nature recordings, I would go there and be as absolutely quiet as possible, so I could hear what music the environment was giving me. Not imposing my music on what is already complete.”
In 2005, a tribute album called Coastline of Our Dreams was released, featuring others singing Tamblyn's songs. Tamblyn said that, at the time, he was shocked to receive such an honour. “I was frozen by it. I was just so amazed that people would do this. I was just very, very touched. At the same time, when it came out, I wished that some of the players had actually learned the tunes. There were verses missed. There were some fabulous arrangements, but then there were a couple that were lackluster and I went, 'Well why did they do that, then?' ”
For this concert, Cancura said they went back and forth quite a bit on arrangements: “I throw out a lot of ideas and I'm very straight-up. And I would say, 'Ian is this going too far?' Sometimes, he's like 'Yeah, maybe a little too far.'”
“It's something we talk about in rehearsals. It's really great for jazz musicians to have a storyteller be ... sometimes we'll go off on ideas of jazz, we'll come up with new chords and new directions and transpose things. And then all of the sudden Ian will go like, 'Hey guys, this song is actually about this. Just remember that.' And we're like, 'Oh yes'. So it's really great to have these two worlds. Ian is so conscious of how important it is to be able to tell a story in a song, and so he reels it in. But I also think he's enjoying watching us stretch and work with his music and take it out of its normal environment.”
Tamblyn said said he's been amazed at the result. “Especially with Roddy, it's just so – he has a whole other palette that he's drawing from. It's really exciting. And the same with Petr because he's a jazz guy, but he's also got his foot in roots music, too. And he plays mandolin, and the clarinet in the edge of clarinet [territory] where Benny Goodman came from, the folkie-Klezmer stuff that ended up being jazz. So he can play that territory as well. And he has an album set in the American South. His orientation in the jazz sphere, at least applied to me, is more from the rootsy section of that. Kind of exciting."
But it will mean some rethinking of the music. “I've been playing some of the songs for 25 or 30 years. And in many cases, the grooves are quite changed, and just what the sections are, the heads and openings. So it's like for me learning 20 new songs.”
Rehearsing for the concert has also been a very different experience for both – much more involved than the usual jazz concert.
“Monumentally [different]. I don't know what to compare it to,” Cancura said. “Both Ian and I are treating this as though we really want it to go well. We want this to be a great experience so we both have dedicated a lot of time to it. If it was just a jazz gig, I might do at the most two or three rehearsals and we'd be all set. But this is going to number in the neighbourhood of 10 to 20 rehearsals.”
“It's interesting for me because I tend to be anal-retentive about rehearsals, and jazz players are a little looser,” Tamblyn said. “I mean I have no doubt of the people's chops, but I tend to want to know everything.”
“I'm not a jazz guy like these guys. They have the chops to blow. I don't think of myself as an old fart, but I think I am a bit of a one. I want it nailed down! The last rehearsal we had, every tune had at least five options. We could do this, well, could do this, and I'm just looking at Roddy's hands going ... oh my!”
This spring, Tamblyn released his 38th album, Walking in the Footsteps, which celebrates the Group of Seven. But now, he said, he's on a hiatus. “The format right now is so up in the air that I don't know what I'm going to do next. It's not that I'm not writing – I am – but I've invested so much doing it myself that I don't know. I'm 67 years old. I'm taking a sabbatical. Because I did an album every year from 2000 to 2015.”
“You constantly go back after you finish an album. An album's an act of negation in some sense: you finish it and by finishing it you go beyond it. But after turning the diamond 38 times, how many more facets have I got? And if people haven't got it by 38 albums, I don't know that they're going to.”
On the other hand, he said, this concert is a “different facet ... And a highly unexpected one. So it's an opportunity.”
Cancura said he had “already learned tons” from the process of preparing for the concert, “as I know Ian has.”
“It's one of the hardest things that I've done so far in my career. Because first of all I wanted to do justice to Ian's music and I just wanted it to sound great. So to do it well takes a lot of work.”
“I've never wanted music to be a surface thing. I want to dig in. I want it to be authentic and true and I want to be able to tell a story. I don't just want to play solos or jazz on top of Ian's songs. That's not the intent."
"Our intent is to make original music.”
– Alayne McGregor
Petr Cancura's CrossRoads concert, featuring Ian Tamblyn, and with Roddy Ellias, John Geggie, and Greg Ritchie, is at the NAC Fourth Stage on Friday, №vember 20, at 7:30 p.m. A three-ticket package for the CrossRoads series is also available.
Read related OttawaJazzScene.ca stories:
- Petr Cancura and Ian Tamblyn combine jazz, folk in satisfying Crossroads concert (video) 
- Crossroads concert scribbled on genre boundaries while remaining true to Lynn Miles' songs (review) 
- Trio Jérôme Beaulieu doesn't miss a beat in show with drummer Greg Ritchie 
- NAC Presents to feature Petr Cancura, Marianne Trudel, and Tanya Tagaq this fall 
- Roddy Ellias, Petr Cancura, and Andrew Downing form equal sides of trekan 
- Ottawa Jazz Festival Programmer Petr Cancura talks about the 2011 Festival