Amy Brandon CD Release of Scavenger, with Roddy Ellias
Metro Music, Ottawa
Saturday, November 12, 2016 – 4 p.m.

Guitarist Amy Brandon released her debut CD, Scavenger, in an hour-long afternoon concert in Ottawa Saturday. The CD mixes jazz, classical, and new music, and features her playing solo and in duos, with guitarists Roddy Ellias and Mike Rud and vocalist Laura Swankey – but also with herself.

Amy Brandon released her debut CD, Scavenger, in Ottawa at Metro Music on November 12. She released it in Toronto the following day. ©Brett Delmage, 2016
Amy Brandon released her debut CD, Scavenger, in Ottawa at Metro Music on November 12. She released it in Toronto the following day. ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Many of the pieces on Scavenger are electro-acoustic, with Brandon playing guitar along with recordings of herself which she had substantially altered with effects. As she explained to the audience at the show, in electro-acoustic music the musician can either manipulate sound live (live-processed) or play against previously-recorded and processed music (fixed media).

She picked fixed media, and for four of the pieces she performed at the show, played sound files on her laptop along with her acoustic guitar. Her warm and resonant guitar-work contrasted with the recorded soundscapes, which were much more varied and unexpected. Sometimes they were dissonant and abrasive and metallic, other times attenuated and whispering and reminding one of birds calling or winds rushing.

The result was immersive and multi-layered, pulsating and almost hypnotic in places. Consistently you could hear how Brandon was responding in the moment to the soundscapes. Throughout the pieces, he audience was still and intent, listening carefully and applauding warmly.

Brandon's background is in jazz guitar, with degrees in jazz guitar performance and composition. She told the audience she was encouraged to begin this project by Ottawa master jazz guitarist Roddy Ellias. Ellias joined her for three jazz-oriented pieces in the show, with strong, fluid voice of his electric guitar dancing around her acoustic guitar patterns, and the styles varying from almost-Latin to gypsy to evocatively melancholy.

The show was held at Metro Music, a long-time music store in the Glebe. Brandon was raised in Ottawa (she now lives in Nova Scotia), and she said the store was an important part of her growing up and her increasing interest in the guitar: “it's such a huge part of the guitar community in Ottawa.” She collected vintage guitar books from the 1960s and 70s, and the store owners would set aside any that they found for her, sometimes stacks of them.

Roddy Ellias played three duo pieces with Amy Brandon at her CD release show ©Brett Delmage, 2016
Roddy Ellias played three duo pieces with Amy Brandon at her CD release show ©Brett Delmage, 2016
More recently, Brandon attended the Banff Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, as well as an Atlantic Centre for the Arts residency with composer Myra Melford. She has performed widely in Canada with Ellias, Mike Rud, and classical ensemble 4Guitars, and is now completing an interdisciplinary PhD in music cognition at Dalhousie University; her academic work concerns improvisation and guitar pedagogy.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor talked to Amy Brandon after her Ottawa CD release concert about the CD and her future plans. The following is an edited transcript of the interview:

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why did you decide to call this CD Scavenger?

Amy Brandon: That's a funny story. Years ago I was teaching at a church and this was back when I was really trying to scratch out as much of a living as I could. So I was renting the church, and I was starting to not be able to afford the rental payments, so I asked the minister if I could maybe play for Sunday services or something instead of paying rent.

And he said yes, very generously, but I don't think he liked the idea that much – because in a later conversation he called me a “scavenger”. And I could see the mortification on his face when he said that [she laughs] because I don't think he meant to say that. I think he meant to say that I was, you know, hustling, or trying to push ahead with whatever advantage I could.

I don't think he really meant it that way – but it always stuck with me. That word “scavenger”. Because it has so many positive and negative connotations, you know. It implies survival. It implies living on the margins. It implies strength. But it also has a lot of negative ones as well: isolation, alienation, subsistence, And so I just really loved the word. And in some ways, it sums up – I don't want to be all-encompassing because everyone's life is different, but the musicians that I speak to – sometimes they tell me that that is the sort of life they're experiencing – especially financially.

Like I said, the word “scavenger” means a lot of different things and I'm not intending for it to be any kind of political statement, because it's not. I just find it an interesting word and I wanted to express what that word felt like.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: And so the songs are expressing some of those aspects, negative and positive?

Brandon: Yes. I wrote the guitar pieces before I did the electro-acoustic portions, but it ended up developing into a cohesive whole.

©Brett Delmage, 2016
©Brett Delmage, 2016

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you get introduced to playing electro-acoustic music? What inspired you to start moving into that area?

Brandon: Before I went to school for music, I interned at a recording studio, so I had a little bit of experience with recording technology. And I decided that I wanted to set up and start running a studio again. So I set up a studio in a disused bunker that's near by to my home in Truro (Nova Scotia), and later on moved it to my home. And so once I had some of the recordings for my album, Scavenger, I just started playing around with the sound files. It also allowed me to reinterpret some of my performances that I wasn't too happy with. It allowed me to reinvent them into a way that made me happy again. So that was another aspect to it.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Because listening to the recorded section [of your concert], this was very, very different than your guitar playing. You've changed the timbre, you've changed the pitch, you done a lot of stuff to this music!

Brandon: It doesn't sound like a guitar anymore at all. But I love the way that it shrieks and that kind of thing. It fit well with the theme of the album.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You mentioned that you deliberately picked pre-recorded electro-acoustic music instead of creating it in the moment. Why did you do that?

Brandon: A couple different reasons. I could reuse previous performances, so there was an element of being able to reinvent previous performances. That was one. Two, it's just practical. Three, it allows me to have more control over what the sound ends up being, so I can tailor it to be the way I want it to be – as opposed to live where there's a lot more variables. I mean, there's enough variables with me just playing that I think that's all I can handle.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You are, to a certain extent, fixed [during your electro-acoustic numbers] by the recording. How much improvisation can you do on top of that?

Brandon: Well, actually, I feel like I'm interacting with the recording more so than just playing to it, because often I will speed up or slow down the pieces. They're not in lockstep [with the recording]. The electro-acoustic piece is about 40 minutes long, so I can stretch it out or minimize it as I see fit in the moment. [That is] I can speed up or slow down my playing.

'Scavenger' CD cover
'Scavenger' CD cover

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me about the art piece you have on your CD cover.

Brandon: That's a sculpture by my husband, Pierre Sabourin. He's only ever done two soapstone sculptures in his life, and that's one of them. And I just love it! It evokes again this feeling of alienation. It's an owl skull. It's quite stark-looking, and it just fits perfectly. And the fact that it's by him is very meaningful to me.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I understand Laura Swankey added vocals on your album?

Brandon: Yes, that's actually a recording from Banff. We did a little improvisation and we played Stella by Starlight in an improvised way. And she has the most beautiful voice, so I was very happy that she agreed to be on the album. She's just a lovely person and an amazing voice.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Where are you going after this?

Brandon: I am lucky to have a couple of people I'm going to be playing with in December. I'm playing twice in California: once in San Diego and once in San Francisco with this amazing composer called Ben Zucker. In San Diego I'm playing with this amazing upright bassist Kyle Motl and then I'm playing in New Zealand and Australia and doing a couple shows in the UK as well.

This is all centred around my PhD: I'm going to a conference in Australia so I sneakily stuck in some concerts to places I probably won't be able to get to again. I'm very happy to have to chance to do that.

    – Alayne McGregor

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