When David Renaud and Brian Browne sat down to record their clarinet-piano duo album, the music just flowed out.

Clarinetist David Renaud has put much of his own life, both grace and redemption, into the choice of songs for his new duo album with pianist Brian Browne. They'll release 'First Love' in a concert on February 27. ©Brett Delmage
Clarinetist David Renaud has put much of his own life, both grace and redemption, into the choice of songs for his new duo album with pianist Brian Browne. They'll release 'First Love' in a concert on February 27. ©Brett Delmage

“The arrangements on this album are just spontaneous. Some of the keys were spontaneous. I just wanted Brian to do what he does, and play along with him. We played off each other. Sometimes I'd hear him pick up on something I did. Sometimes I was playing off what he did. It's a conversation back and forth,” Renaud said.

The CD is called First Love. It's Renaud's first album under his own name, and the first recording the two veteran Ottawa jazz musicians have made together. It will be formally released this Saturday, February 27, in a concert at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Ottawa's east end.

It's a mixture of jazz standards and hymns, with the theme of passion and love – both romantic and spiritual love – never far away from any of the songs.

But despite how well the initial sessions went in 2013, it's taken Renaud another 2½ years to be completely satisfied with his clarinet side of the music, and be ready to release the album. He reworked several of the clarinet tracks (some within the last six months) until they met his expectations, and then remixed them with Browne's original piano tracks.

That didn't affect the feel of the album, Renaud said. “Even though I played it later, it really sounds like we're having a conversation. He did play to me and my habits. And I'm playing to him. So even though some of the tracks were done in different times, we're still playing off each other.”

“I'm happy with the end result. I've pined and fussed over it for a long time before releasing it. I think, clarinet being my main instrument, I took a lot of this personally.”

He finally gave it a soft release early this year, printing the physical CDs and releasing the album on-line.

Renaud is equally at home in classical and jazz orchestras in Ottawa, or playing New Orleans music with Dr. Jazz and swing music with the Starlighters, or in many smaller jazz ensembles. He plays clarinets in several keys, and every type of saxophone, from soprano to baritone, and is also a well-respected piano technician.

Browne is a renowned pianist with a deep love and understanding of jazz standards. His bluesy style is in the lineage of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner and Bill Evans, but distinctly his own. He regularly sells out concerts at the National Arts Centre, and almost filled Confederation Park in his trio's most recent appearance on the Ottawa Jazz Festival's main stage.

Browne returned to Ottawa in 1999, after many years in New York City. Shortly after his return, he and Renaud were introduced to each other. “I think Bob Langley from the [musicians'] union office introduced us. He came out to one of my Dr. Jazz gigs. Bob dragged him out. Brian had stopped playing at that time and Bob was trying to convince him to play again.”

Soon after that, Renaud said, they played a show together at the Ottawa Airport, and that was the start of many gigs together. “He played with our Dr. Jazz group sometime, the Starlighters sometimes, sometimes for dinner gigs, duos, trios.”

Brian Browne ©Brett Delmage, 2010
Brian Browne ©Brett Delmage, 2010

They also both tuned pianos: “when Brian came back, Ken Lauzon at Steinway helped him out quite a bit, and gave him a place to teach, and taught him to tune pianos. Part of his income for some years was piano tuning. We had common ground to chew on and talk about. He would call me often, asking questions about this, that, and the other relating to that trade. Then I ended up tuning his piano at home.”

Renaud said he'd been wanting to record an album for a long time, but had been “putting it off, trying to get better. And life is busy.”

He envisioned it as a clarinet-piano duo because “I wanted the sound to be exposed. If you add bass and drums and other stuff, it's a harder mix. The sounds tend to get buried more easily, less room to breathe.”

“I didn't want to do a bebop album or something crazy. I wanted something more intimate that showed the sounds and tonally had some integrity to it.”

And why Brian Browne? “I liked the way he plays. I play better with him because I try to play up to his level. And that pushes me."

They recorded the album at Shine Studios in Little Italy, on different floors: “I was in a room upstairs on a pair of headphones so that there was absolutely no leakage into the piano, so that I could redo any tracks I wanted later, and not contaminate the piano tracks.”

Working with sound engineer Mike Mullin, Renaud spent a whole day preparing for the recording: “just trying different mic positions, inside the piano, stereos, monos, outside the piano, the lid on, the lid off, and coming up with a formula we liked in that space. We tried to get as nice a sound as we could.”

The piano Browne played on this recording is one of two Bösendorfer pianos owned by Carleton University. It's on long-term loan to Shine, and it's a piano which Renaud completely rebuilt: “put a pin block in, hammers on, voiced, tuned.” That's another goal he had for the album, he said: “I wanted a piano that I had worked on to be on the recording.”

An unexpected concert location and a possible encore CD

Renaud said he had originally not planned to have a formal CD release concert, because Browne's cancer had recurred and he was undergoing radiation treatment. “I didn't want to impose a concert upon him.”

But his friends who had heard the CD were all asking him when the concert would be. So, finally, he phoned Browne, and it turned out Browne was well enough to perform again. Renaud knew the store manager of the Ottawa Steinway Piano Gallery quite well, and had done some technical technical work for the store. The manager told him they wanted to make the space available for recitals and concerts – and agreed to host this concert.

I liked the way Brian Browne plays. I play better with him because I try to play up to his level. And that pushes me.
– David Renaud

The location is, in fact, quite appropriate, Renaud said, because Browne is Ottawa's only Steinway artist. And similarly to the Bösendorfer on the recording, the nine-foot Steinway which Browne will play at the concert is one Renaud is working on, regulating and voicing it. He will tune it for the concert.

Besides the B-flat and A clarinets used on the CD, Renaud will add a third clarinet voice to the concert: a bass clarinet.

Admission to the concert is the purchase of the CD, at $20. Renaud said that attendees can buy a second CD, at the concert only, for $10. “It's a pretty good deal – you can go to the NAC and pay $50 a ticket for one of Brian's concerts, or come to the Steinway Gallery for free and buy the CD there and get more bang for your buck.”

Renaud will record the concert – and hopes to release some of the songs on another CD, to go with tunes left over from the 2013 recording session. At that session, they recorded 16 tracks, all good, but only 11 could be included on First Love.

“There's an encore CD in waiting, maybe.”

Many First Loves

Renaud said the CD's title, First Love, refers to his first love, his wife Manon, but also to his first passion in life: music. It also refers to the clarinet, his first wind instrument and the instrument to which he has the greatest affinity.

“Honestly I think, the clarinet – I've spent more time on it, taken it more seriously, I've invested more in that direction, so... You put 10,000 hours into something and it starts to own you.”

He said he loved the clarinet's wide palette and how it can be “very open-sounding. It's very rich and deep. It has a great big dynamic range, and there's a fluency to it.

Renaud said the jazz clarinetist he'd probably listened to the most is Eddie Daniels – and he took the duo album Daniels did with pianist Roger Kellaway, Duet of One, as the starting place for the sound and concept of this CD, and a point of reference when mixing it. He also included the standard, “Beautiful Love”, on the CD because it's the title track of an album by Eddie Daniels, which is “probably the album I've listened to most in my life; it sits in my car the most.”

A heart made of thorns

The CD's cover shows a heart made of thorns, which Renaud said reflects its theme: that “real love is tested. We'll go through suffering and we'll overcome.”

“I think a lot of great art in many disciplines, in many arts, comes from a need, from maybe a place of pain or escaping something. A lot of artists have a need to express themselves and a lot of great art comes from that place, not just individually but culturally. I think of the origins of jazz from Negro spiritual music, the earliest roots came out of slavery. Music for them was a big part of their lives and a way to express themselves.”

First Love CD cover
First Love CD cover

Renaud picked all the songs on the CD, going for favourite tunes like “Georgia on my Mind” – “probably the first tune I ever tried to memorize when I was in high school”.

“Where is Love”, from the musical Oliver, is one he'd played in an Orpheus production. “The image there is of an orphan in the street, singing 'Where is Love?', which is back to the heart of thorns.”

“I wanted tunes that people would know, that people are familiar with, that people could relate to. Although I wanted it to be nice jazz, I wanted flexible, lyrical phrases, melodies that people know, [so] even people who aren't jazz fans can listen to it and like it. One of the first pieces of feedback I got on it was from a relative in Montreal who wrote me back and said 'you know, I don't like jazz but I like this.' ”

While Renaud picked the tunes, “Brian being such a spectacular, fabulous piano player, he's at the heart of the CD. In terms of how they came out and arranging them – intros, endings – that's pretty much all on him. I didn't dictate any of that. It was just like, do what you do.”

Sometimes Renaud surprised Browne – for example, playing “Amazing Grace” in a non-standard key. “I used an A clarinet on that instead of a B-flat. About 60% of the orchestra repertoire is written for the A clarinet, not the B-flat. It's a little bigger, longer instrument. It's a little darker in tone. So I'm upstairs, and I spoke down to Brian on the microphone, and I said, 'Brian, I want to do Amazing Grace in A'. He calls back up, 'In A?' And I said, 'Yes, in A.' 'OK. No problem.' He had no warning.”

Renaud's very personal connection to “Amazing Grace”

“Amazing Grace” is one of two hymns on the album. It was written by John Newton, a former slave trader who worked with William Wilberforce to abolish slavery in the British Empire. “It's his confession and redemptive story.”

“In the words of the tune, the 10,000 souls he speaks of are the 10,000 slaves that were his victims. And the melody of that tune probably came out of the hold of a slave ship. He put words to an African tune.”

“And you'll notice Amazing Grace is all pentatonic, played on the black notes on the piano, and starting on a C# [he plays the melody on a piano]. So although it doesn't sound like a blues, because it starts on the wrong note, it is a blues scale, the blues pentatonic scale.”

So much art, and beauty comes from overcoming, and from a need to seek a way past pain ... So, yes, the album is quite personal, and, yes, about love.
– David Renaud

Renaud said he had a personal connection to that hymn because, when he was 12-13, he travelled the world with “a very nefarious person”. They moved to South Africa in 1972-73, during the height of the apartheid era.

“For a time I lived on a plantation/farm serviced by a dozen black slaves that lived in a small shack with nothing. Illegal to leave. Back then a black could prepare a wall for painting but could not paint [it] because it was illegal for them to perform skilled labor. They needed a special pass [to] have permission to enter the white cities.”

“To cut to the chase, I was traveling with a man that was proud of slaughtering 24 blacks in their sleep one night in Nairobi, and who declared a main reason for moving to South Africa was that they knew how to treat blacks.”

Renaud said he just learned this week that this man just died. “So I've been reflecting on a flood of old memories.”

The theme of “Amazing Grace” is “love rooted in moving on, on a foundation of forgiveness, grace and redemption, the Christian story, message and ethic, foundational to the abolishment story. Also an important spiritual component to my life, that has helped me move on.”

His own life and marriage has required “grace and forgiveness, and moving on” through love, he said. “So amazing grace is part of a real love story.”

“So much art, and beauty comes from overcoming, and from a need to seek a way past pain, express, escape, seeking capturing the essence of what it means to be human. ... So, yes, the album is quite personal, and, yes, about love.”

    – Alayne McGregor

David Renaud and Brian Browne launch their CD, First Love, at the Steinway Piano Gallery, 1481A Innes Road [map], at 7 p.m. on Saturday, February 27, 2016. Admission is by buying a CD: $20.

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