“I like to hear things that I haven't heard before,” says Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart – and that's an experience he and the audience are likely to share this Friday as he performs a drums and voice duet with renowned jazz singer Jeri Brown.

Montreal vocalist Jeri Brown joins Jesse Stewart for the first time in two shows at GigSpace on February 5. ©Brett Delmage
Montreal vocalist Jeri Brown joins Jesse Stewart for the first time in two shows at GigSpace on February 5. ©Brett Delmage
The two shows at GigSpace will be the first time Stewart and Brown have performed publicly together. And that freshness is typical of most of Stewart's concerts this spring, in which he will be trying out new instruments and new types of collaborations.

Stewart can only remember one other concert where he played with a vocalist, although he has played many times in duets with other instrumentalists. But collaborating with Jeri Brown puts him in very good company.

The Montreal singer is blessed with a four-octave range and a musical sensibility that encompasses everything from musical theatre to jazz standards to free improv. She's been nominated four times for Juno Awards. She has worked with everyone from Ellis Marsalis to Fred Hersch to Joe Lovano to Vic Vogel.

Brown has embraced the tradition with tributes to vocalists such as Nina Simone, Betty Carter, and Ella Fitzgerald – but also consistently recorded and performed new compositions by composers like Kenny Wheeler, David Murray, D. D. Jackson, Kenny Werner, Fred Hersch, and Erik Truffaz.

Ottawa guitarist Roddy Ellias has also collaborated with Brown, releasing an album together in 2010.

“I think very highly of her work,” Stewart said. “I don't just think that Jeri is a great jazz vocalist – I think she's one of the great jazz vocalists. I think she's really, really astonishingly good at what she does.”

Although Stewart had previously listened to her recordings, the first time they met in person was last weekend, when he drove down to Montreal for a rehearsal.

“It was actually very easy. She's very easy to play with, because she's such a good musician, with such great ears and such a wonderful improviser. It was a very easy fit – to my ears, anyway.”

They jammed a bit, he said, but “we didn't actually play that much. Mostly we just talked. It was nice to get to know one another musically but also just to get to know one another personally a little bit.”

Stewart was impressed.

“In particular I would say she has extraordinary ears. She's really, really incredibly musical, and she's just got amazing ears. Mostly what I had heard of Jeri's work had been her doing standards and the like, and that's what she's best known for, I think.”

“But she also is very interested in and adept at stretching out and doing more, for lack of a better term, more experimental things vocally. That's a big area of interest for her, and not something that she gets to do that often, because much of her performance practice is performing the standard repertoire. She is amazing at that, but she's also amazing at stretching out. And I think really because she is such a good musician and has such great ears, I think that's what enables her to do both of those things so compellingly.”

Stewart himself is a notable improviser, frequently playing concerts completely in the moment, as he did with Joe McPhee and Nicolas Caloia at the 2015 Ottawa Jazz Festival, and with John Geggie and David Mott at the 2015 Chamberfest.

Stewart said the show on Friday “will explore the entire spectrum, I think, of jazz and improvised music. I don't think we're going to have even a road map to begin, but what we agreed is that if she hears some kind of standard melody or something that she would like to do, then to go for it.”

Brown has a trio in Montreal which “does more experimental stuff where she incorporates electronics, like modifies her voice using effects pedals and the like, and I think she'll be doing some of that.”

Stewart said his playing would be “centred around the drumset”, but he might also integrate in congas or a cajon or a frame drum.

The concert came about because of Stewart's other role – as an associate professor in Carleton University's music school, and in charge this year of organizing the school's Friday afternoon masterclasses. Brown is also an associate professor of music – at Concordia University in Montreal.

“We wanted to have a jazz vocalist do a masterclass, and of course I couldn't think of anybody better than Jeri. We corresponded about that last summer, about her coming to do a masterclass. And then I said, while you're in town, if you would like to do a performance together, it would make the trip a little bit more worthwhile that way, but it also might be fun! And she was interested in doing that.”

At the masterclass on Friday afternoon, Brown will talk about jazz vocals, and listen to student performers and offer constructive feedback on their performances. “But she may also talk about other things, like she also talks about bringing a West African kind of sensibility to vocal performance and things like that.”

Stewart said he hoped he and Brown would be able to perform together again: “I was pretty excited by what we did [this weekend], and she seemed to be too. So we both said it would be nice to do more than just a one-off.”

A piano-palette duo

Stewart is stretching himself in different ways in the next few months with a series of shows and collaborations. For example, last Friday, he unveiled a new-to-him musical instrument.

It's a percussion instrument called an Amplified Palette, created by American instrument inventor called Hal Rammel, which consists of an artist's palette with a contact microphone on the bottom, and a series of wood and metal spines attached on top. Stewart described it as micro-tonal and textural, and said he could play it with his hands, with mallets, or with a bow.

The Palette is “something I'd never heard before, anything quite like it. Which I like. So that was exciting for me, actually. I enjoyed that. I'm always looking for new sounds, and new textures and the like, and I feel like this instrument gave me that."

Watch a Youtube video of Rammel demonstrating the Palette

Stewart played the Palette during a duo show January 29 at Carleton University with pianist James McGowan, and “I thought that what James did in response on the piano, which of course is a very tonal instrument, I thought worked very well.”

He and McGowan will be playing a drums-piano duo concert at GigSpace on March 11, although he wasn't sure if he would bring the Palette to that show. He said the concert would be primarily improvised, but might also draw from McGowan's extensive experience with classical piano repertoire.

While the two have played several noon-hour duo concerts Carleton in the music school over the years, this will be their first more-public concert together.

Filling City Hall with Sound

This month, Stewart will fill Ottawa City Hall with sound, in a free concert at noon on Thursday, February 11, as part of Chamberfest's City Series. He's doing a percussion duet with percussionist (and long-time collaborator) Johannes Welsch, for the first time since they collaborated at Winterlude in 2011.

Welsch will bring in several large metal gongs from his Dunrobin Sonic Gym: “I think we used two of his three-foot gongs in that Winterlude performance. He's going to bring those plus one of the five-footers, which is really an extraordinary-sounding instrument. It's something else!”

“He has special frames to hang his gongs. He's actually hired a moving company, I believe, to move the gear that morning. The five-footer in particular – that's a lot of metal! It is quite an extraordinary sound. I don't think I've ever heard anything quite like it, or played anything like it. Never have I seen an instrument that requires so little input relative to the amount of sonic output. You just touch it and there's this wall of sound that is really awe-inspiring!”

Stewart will be playing his clear acrylic drumset, in “what I think is quite an interesting drum set-up as well.”

Everyone in the vicinity will hear the music: “Oh yes, you'll hear us. Even the Mayor will hear us!”

A new view of the Sonoluminescence Trio

Jeff Schlanger - musicWitness, paints a GJF performance which includes Jesse Stewart ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Jeff Schlanger - musicWitness, paints a GJF performance which includes Jesse Stewart ©Brett Delmage, 2013
In mid-March, Stewart's Sonoluminescence Trio will tour Ontario (Toronto, Hamilton, and Guelph), starting with two shows at GigSpace on March 18. The high-powered trio, which also includes notable improvising musicians William Parker on double bass and David Mott on baritone sax, has played several well-received concerts at GigSpace, including a CD release show a year ago.

The cover of that CD was a painting by visual artist Jeff Schlanger of the trio's first performance in 2007. And for the tour this year, Schlanger will be joining the trio to document each performance. He'll set up his easel and paints near the stage at each show and paint, inspired by the music, while the musicians perform – finishing the painting or paintings as they finish the show. Schlanger describes this practice as “musicWitness”, and has done it for many performances, particularly of improvised music.

Working in the community

Stewart was particularly excited by some new initiatives he's working on with local community groups. “Over the past few years, more and more of my time is going into community music-oriented things. In some ways, it's become one of my main focuses, where a lot of my time and energy is going.”

In March, he said, he would be performing with some aboriginal young people, with whom he's been working for the past few months. And he's just starting a project creating music with a group of seniors who have Alzheimer's and/or dementia, as well as their care-givers, “creating new music together – creating new memories”. He hoped that would culminate in a performance in early May.

“So I'm excited about that one. I think that will be an interesting experience, certainly for me anyway and I hope it is for the other people involved too.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Jesse Stewart and Jeri Brown perform at GigSpace Performance Studio, 953 Gladstone Avenue, on Friday, February 5, 2016, in two shows: 7 and 9 p.m. Brown will also give a masterclass at Carleton University from 3 to 5 p.m. on Friday, at Kailash Mital Theatre. The masterclass is free and open to the public.