Saturday, September 17, 2016: The second set was about to start in an afternoon concert at the Guelph Jazz Festival when the news was announced. Guitarist and composer Ken Aldcroft had died of a heart attack at only age 46. The room went completely silent, and the faces in the audience and on-stage were shocked and dismayed.
Aldcroft was a mainstay of Toronto's jazz and improvised music scene. He co-founded the Association of Improvising Musicians (AIM) Toronto, and led groups ranging from the duo Hat and Beard, to the six-piece Convergence Ensemble, to the AIMToronto Orchestra – releasing more than 25 recordings of his music. He was a frequent visitor to Ottawa, playing with his own groups and with American duo partners like bassist William Parker, and saxophonist Jason Robinson.
He hasn't been forgotten. At the Tranzac Club in Toronto, there's a monthly concert of music “by and for Ken Aldcroft”.
And, from March 2 to 11, five of his musical friends and collaborators are touring across Ontario and Quebec to perform his music for a larger audience [see tour schedule]. They'll be in Ottawa on Saturday, March 3 at Black Squirrel Books. [Read our review of the show: A heartfelt and boundary-breaking tribute to Ken Aldcroft].
The tour is the brainchild of two long-time Aldcroft collaborators: Jason Robinson and Toronto drummer Joe Sorbara. Playing with them are Boston guitarist Eric Hofbauer, Montreal guitarist Daniel Kruger and (ex-Ottawa, now Montreal) trumpeter Emily Denison.
Robinson, an Assistant Professor of Music at Amherst College in Massachusetts, worked with Aldcroft for seven years, playing sax-guitar duo concerts in the U.S. and Canada. They performed together in Ottawa in July, 2015. Robinson has taken the music he played on those tours – all compositions by Aldcroft – and revived it in a duo with Hofbauer called “Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late”. At the end of this tour, they plan to record the compositions in Toronto for an eventual CD release.
OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor interviewed Robinson about this tour and Aldcroft's music this week. This is an edited version of that conversation.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you first become aware of Ken Aldcroft and of his music?
Jason Robinson: In 2005, Cosmologic, a collective ensemble that I was a part of was booked to play at the Guelph Jazz Festival, just outside of Toronto. We'd set up a big tour connected to that, and we were very interested in playing in Toronto. And all roads let to Ken and Somewhere There, and eventually AIMToronto. There's an incredibly vibrant experimental / creative music / improvised music / jazz scene in Toronto. So I met Ken then.
We became friends at that point, and within a few years we started playing as a duo. We toured in the U.S., here on the East Coast, and then also in Canada. We played various places in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa. We developed a duo project, that featured compositions that he had written, I believe as part of a Canada Council grant that he received several years before. It became a natural thing for us to play together. That's what we were doing, up until his untimely passing.
So part of what is happening during this tour is a culmination of that project that Ken and I had been developing for a while.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What attracted you to Ken's music?
Robinson: First and foremost, he was such an amazing, inventive, virtuosic, performer and improviser. I immediately heard it when I played with him. That very first moment that I met him in person, when my group Cosmologic played, the second set of that evening was various improvisations and different combinations of musicians.
So we played together that night. And I think this often happens with touring musicians – you encounter somebody while you're on tour, and your jaw just drops to the ground! Like Oh My Gosh, where did you come from? [laughs] And I certainly had that experience with Ken. I immediately recognized him as a very significant and developed guitarist, and creative thinker. Over time, I learned more about his composing and his approach to composing for improvisers, and then learned so many different things about him, as an educator and as a musician, and his role in the Canadian creative music scene.
From the first day I met him, I knew that he was a singular voice, actually, for the guitar in Canadian music. It remained that way until the last day I knew him.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: When you two were playing your collaborations and touring, was it strictly the music that Ken wrote?
Robinson: Over time, it developed and evolved a bit. There was a period of time where we were playing some of my pieces. But it just became clear, at a certain point, that this repertoire had this very special quality to it. That became the identity, really, of our duo. So as we played around in different places, it just became very apparent that it was urgent that we record and document that music of his. And everything led in that direction for our collaboration.
So what we had planned to do a couple months after his passing, was at the culmination of a tour to record there in Toronto. And unfortunately that didn't come to be.
But in this particular tour, along with the help of friends – some amazing musicians in Canada and a very good friend of mine from Boston, an amazing guitarist that actually played with Ken as well when he was in Boston – we're, in a certain way, recreating that lost tour. And we're going to record in Toronto toward the end of the tour to document this music and release it as an album, entitled “Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late”, which is a piece in this repertoire of Ken's that we have been working on, with a great, funny back-story that has to do with what it's like being a touring musician, going to airports where you arrive two hours early, but somehow you're still ten minutes late at the gate. [laughs]
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did the music use the capabilities of guitar and tenor?
Robinson: Well, there's a history and tradition in jazz of the guitar/saxophone duo, and that might be one way of thinking about the music. But Ken had a really developed sense and identity as a composer, so for me when I think about this particular music, I'm thinking more from that perspective of Ken's music, so...
Almost all of the pieces have two parts, because it's a duo: a top part and a bottom part. But the way we developed it was that either one of us could play either part. So it's a very malleable approach to composed / written / predetermined music. And then there are sections of improvisation – and the way Ken and I did it, the sections of improvisation could happen at any moment. So the compositions were a fixed point of departure or a point of reference, and at any moment we could go into something where we were hearing where the music was leading. We could just follow that, follow our ears in that direction.
And we would switch parts around in the moment. Sometimes we would start a piece where Ken was playing the top part and I'm playing the bottom part, and in other instances or performances of the piece, he would start on the opposite side. And I would hear that, and we would jump into the tune, playing in this other way.
So I think that there's a way of thinking about a lot of Ken's approach to composing for improvisers, in the sense that there is a pre-existing composition with different parts, but it's very flexible in how you actualize the actual composition. So anybody could play any part at any moment.
He was very adamant about that. I remember so many different meals and drives, us talking about his compositional strategy while on tour, and I was really very impressed with how developed his ideas were around this. As a composer that composes for improvisers, his concept that he was trying to develop is something that, it's at the highest level of any other composers/improvisers that I've encountered in the New York scene and Europe and on the west coast of the U.S. Ken was right there with everybody – it's really so impressive.
Meeting him in Toronto that first time, and recognizing what he was doing, I immediately thought of the highest level of this music, in any international context. So it's a thrill to be able to play his music.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What do you think you learned from him?
Robinson: We all come from different communities in far-flung places, and we become part of the storyline of this great tradition of music, this jazz tradition. Some people call it jazz, some people call it creative music or improvised music or experimental music.
Ken gave me a kind of renewed hope that the music will continue to evolve. And it's going to be people like Ken, and others, that aren't necessarily from New York, or from the epicenters of the history of the music. Instead, it's going to be musicians that are from all sorts of different places around the world, helping to continue to shape it in the future and be big leaders in the music.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: When I heard of Ken's death, at the Guelph Jazz Festival during a concert, everyone in the room was deeply shocked and sad. What was your reaction to hearing of Ken's death?
Robinson: Well, shock as well – and I immediately thought of his wife and his son, Maria and Liam. When someone suddenly passes away at 46, it's hard. Ken was my collaborator but he was also a very good friend. It's very challenging to deal with and process those emotions, and think about what he meant to me personally and all the other peoples' lives that he touched.
And of course I immediately in my mind went to all the laughs that we had, and the absurdities of being touring musicians, on the road together [laughs]. And also all the amazing musical moments that we shared.
It's a difficult thing. It was very unexpected. In these kinds of situations, we often think about somebody as a musician and the dedication they have to their craft and their art and everything. But I remember Ken as a very incredibly dedicated family man, that cared and loved his wife and son more than anything in the world. I remember staying at his house and looking at the really interesting ways that he juggled life as a creative person and as a family person.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: One thing I really liked about Ken was his Hat and Beard project [playing the music of Thelonious Monk]. It was really interesting to hear because it combined a great love of Monk's music but not taking it too seriously. Was that typical of his approach?
Robinson: Well, he was always the first person to laugh in a situation, which is a good way of looking at how someone navigates humour. I mean, His understanding of Monk was incredibly deep. I remember different conversations with him where he was comparing his Monk to different kinds of Monk projects that have developed in the last 20 years so.
And he had a very keen understanding of what he was trying to do. It wasn't just simply playing Monk. It was him thinking about his way of structuring music and composing for improvisers meeting the way that Monk tended to think harmonically and rhythmically and melodically,
One of the pieces that he composed for the duo project is called “Sphere”. He doesn't dedicate it to Monk, but it's very clearly a Thelonious Monk-inspired piece. And we talked quite a bit about how to play it and what it means to play it in the context of a repertoire that has a lot of other directions happening in it. So I've always been impressed by the way he thought about Monk. And Monk is a very singular kind of player – when you play Thelonious Monk's music, it's very obvious you're playing Thelonious Monk's music. Ken had a way of personalizing that. I hope that, I think that, his approach to it would have been something that Monk and his contemporaries would have appreciated. I don't think that that generation of jazz musicians in the U.S. were very interested in hearing a museum piece. No, I think he would have wanted to hear it done in a different way.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me about your current group with Eric Hofbauer. You said that Eric played with Ken?
Robinson: Yes. Eric Hofbauer, he's a really wonderful, tremendous guitarist. I had the same feeling about him when I first met and played with him as I did with Ken: here is a very significant singular voice on the guitar, coming out of the jazz tradition but with an obvious personal approach that's quite developed. Eric is part of the creative side of the jazz scene in Boston, which is quite thriving.
We met quite a while ago. We played in a few different groups together. We play in one together right now. And during one of Ken's tours down here, we were on tour together and there was one night that I just didn't have free. So Ken went out to Boston and played on an evening that Eric had helped to coordinate. And they played as a duo. And then that started a little bit of a correspondence between the two of them.
So after some time passed after Ken's passing, I was in touch with Joe Sorbara about coming to Canada and trying to finish the project. Immediately Eric came to mind. He's a virtuoso guitarist and improviser with a lot of sensibilities that overlap with Ken's way of approaching things.
So he and I started playing some of this music, just privately, getting together and playing through pieces and rehearsing the tunes. It became immediately apparent that from my point of view, I think, this was a really great way of celebrating all this music and this duo with Ken was to have someone like Eric play it. And I don't say that lightly. There are tremendous jazz guitarists in Boston and in New York, and I would gladly play with any of them if I thought it was the right match. And this is exactly the right match.
Eric is really a tremendous musician and he's bringing himself to it. Having known Ken, I don't think he's interested in completely replicating what Ken would do. Instead I think he is taking his cue from what Ken would say if he was here with us, which is “Make it your own”. And Eric has the chops to play the music, which is not easy – it's really quite technically challenging music on both the saxophone and the guitar. Eric does a tremendous job with it – and then makes it his own.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How many compositions are there in this suite of Ken's music that you'll be playing?
Robinson: There's 12 pieces. It's almost impossible to play all 12 in one concert, in one one-hour set or something like that. So we're going to use the same approach that Ken and I did, which was to play some of the music each night and then a portion of the repertoire gets rotated in from concert to concert, in different ways.
But when we record in Toronto, we're going to record all the pieces and see where they fall. And I think all the pieces are going to fit into one CD-length recording. So they'll all get in there. It's really amazing: the repertoire ranges from things that sound like jazz standards – the “Sphere” piece is one of those. There's another one called “Parkdale Serenade” written in homage to a neighbourhood in Toronto.
And then some of the other pieces are really hard to describe, they're groove-oriented pieces, but they are a bit more atonal in nature and they have a sound world unto themselves for each one of them. And then there are two pieces that are more blues-oriented. There's one piece that I absolutely love called “Study In” and it's really like a modern classical music étude with extended techniques for the guitar and really challenging passages. The written material is all a springboard to a large, long section of improvisation. You just get nudged in these different directions because the composed material is so different.
So it's really quite a varied repertoire. I've never encountered something like this for a sax / guitar duo. It's a joy to play it.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me how Joe Sorbara and Mars People became involved in the tour.
Robinson: After some time had passed after Ken's death, I began to think, OK, I'd really like to honour Ken by finishing this project that we had started. And I know he cared a lot about the music. So I mourned for quite a long time, and then started thinking, “OK, what would be the right way to try to finish this”?
I knew Joe Sorbara from a long time ago. I met him the same night that I met Ken. Like Ken, he's been a crucial, central figure in the Toronto creative music scene for many years. And he was one of Ken's best friends.
So I reached out to him and just said, “You know, I'd like to try to finish this up, and I'm just wondering if you have any advice on how to book a tour”. He immediately came up with the idea of, Why don't we do a double bill tour? Let's tour together, and I'll put together a group of people that have played with Ken. You'll have the duo, and we'll tour together, we'll set up the tour, and each night we'll also in addition to one set by each group, we'll also do a few pieces where we play together as a quintet.
I thought that was a fabulous idea, on so many different levels.
So Joe put the group together, with Daniel Kruger, a guitarist based in Montreal who was a former student of Ken's, and the wonderful trumpeter (known in Ottawa) Emily Denison, who also played with Ken. And of course Joe had this very deep, long relationship with Ken. So it just all of the sudden became a match made in heaven.
There were these different layers to what the tour is and how it relates to Ken and collaborating with Joe for the tour is another very significant meaningful way, I think, of trying to honour Ken as much as possible.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: In the quintet part of the show, what material will you be playing?
Robinson: We are going to play three different pieces. We'll probably only do one or two pieces each night.
Two of them are things that Joe Sorbara suggested because of his long-term work with Ken, and then the final one, “The Yanks are Coming”, is one that Daniel suggested because of his work with Ken and his studies with Ken. This captures Ken's humour in a great way. And I reminded Daniel, that, yes, the Yanks are coming – we'll see you in Montreal.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: These are separate from the ones in the suite you played with Ken?
Robinson: Completely separate. Ken's compositional oeuvre is really enormous. As I got to know him over the years, I was so impressed by his productivity as a recording artist and as a composer. Every time I talked to him, I learned about more directions in his own composing than I had previously known about.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me about the recording. Will it just be you and Eric?
Robinson: It's just Eric and I. That's it. There's a little bit more to the back story as well with this. One of Ken's long-time friends is by day an attorney, and then for a couple of decades, by night he was a recording engineer, high-fidelity audio enthusiast. His name is John Sorenson, and he's the person behind the mixing console, so to speak, for basically all of Ken's recordings – and Ken put out a lot of albums!
Over the years, I understand he became more selective about what projects and what musicians he was working with and because of his professional life just gradually decided to not do it anymore, especially when Ken passed away. So I'm super-thrilled that John is coming out of retirement, and he's going to be engineering the recording session and mixing and mastering the duo recording. I met John on several occasions when Ken would come down to Massachusetts and we'd go on tour, and there were some trips where John came as well and the three of us were on the road together a little bit. This is another layer in the project really connecting with Ken's legacy.
After that, I'm not 100% sure where the project will lead. I'm pretty sure it's going to be released as a CD on a record label here in the States called pfMENTUM. They're, along with Nine Winds Records, really the chief documenters of this type of music on The West Coast. It's great company to be in. If Ken were still with us, he'd be thrilled to release us in that context as well.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I remember reading a quote from Ken Aldcroft at one point, saying that "In any creative music you need the audience to participate by actively listening to what you are offering or sharing." How are you planning to involve the audience in these shows?
Robinson: There's many ways of approaching that question, but I'll revert back to conversations that Ken and I had about doing this kind of thing. I think one of the meanings that he would often explain in relation to that quote, was it's not so much about audience participation or catering to an audience's interest in some consumer supply/demand relationship. Instead, I think he meant that when you play this kind of music, that has so much improvisation in it, that you really feel the energy of the listener. The journey and experience of the listener becomes a kind of energy that you feel as you're performing it.
I know, for myself, I thrive on that kind of energy. I find it harder – much, much harder – to play for two people in a room than to play for 60 people in a room that are really listening. It's almost as if you feel people's presence and focus and attention on the drama of the music, narratives that come out in the music, senses of surprise and adventure and tension and release, and all of that that occur in the music.
And I think that Ken was very interested in really bringing listeners into his music in that way, having it be unexpected, maybe familiar in a certain sense but also unexpected and a journey. So it's very different than mainstream consumer culture, where you go and you buy a Big Mac and the Big Mac always tastes exactly the same. I think Ken, and a lot of the music that I'm interested in making too, it's like improvising while you're cooking – and you want everyone in the kitchen with you at the same time, and then to enjoy the meal after that, and to laugh, and to have a time full of joy and all of the different vicissitudes of life, challenges, relief, celebration, joy, all of that.
I think that Ken was always trying to connect with listeners in that way. I'm deeply interested in those same things, and I think playing Ken's duo music is absolutely connected to those same kinds of interests and concerns.
Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late (Jason Robinson and Eric Hofbauer), and Mars People (Joe Sorbara, Daniel Kruger, and Emily Denison) will appear at Black Squirrel Books in Ottawa South, on Saturday, March 3, at 9 p.m. At the concert, Robinson will also release his new album by his Janus Ensemble, entitled Resonant Geographies.
The concert is organized by the Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais (IMOO), and admission is $5/$10 or pay what you can. The bookstore is located at 1073 Bank Street, across from the Mayfair Theatre. OC Transpo routes 6 and 7 stop immediately in front of the store.
- Friday, March 2: Montréal [Café Résonance, 9 p.m.]
- Saturday, March 3: Ottawa [Black Squirrel Books (IMOO), 9 p.m.]
- Sunday, March 4: Hamilton [Artword Artbar (Zula Presents), 7:30 p.m.]
- Wednesday, March 7: Waterloo [Harmony Lunch (Admission of Guilt), 8 p.m.]
- Thursday, March 8: Kingston [St Mark’s Lutheran Church (Tone Deaf), 7:30 p.m.]
- Friday, March 9: Guelph [Silence, 8 p.m.]
- Saturday, March 10: Toronto [the TRANZAC, 10 p.m.]
- Sunday, March 11: Toronto [Array Space (Somewhere There presents a temporary ensembles night), 8 p.m.]
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