Toronto jazz pianist Jeremy Ledbetter wants to welcome and include all listeners, whether or not they're hardcore jazz fans.

Jeremy Ledbetter (photo by Denise Grant)
Jeremy Ledbetter: "in the world of jazz, we need to expand our audience. And the way we do that is by playing music that draws people in and welcomes them in and includes them. So I was trying to write music that would be enjoyable to listen to on more than just an intellectual level." (photo by Denise Grant)

“One of the places I think a lot of jazz takes a wrong turn is it becomes very isolationist. It shuts off interaction between the players and the audience. It becomes all about interaction between the players, and all about the audience observing this interaction between the players. But then all the things that happen are like almost inside jokes that the audience isn’t a part of. And I don’t think that’s what jazz was originally supposed to be, and I don’t think it’s what it’s supposed to be now.”

He'll be putting that open philosophy into practice on Saturday, when he performs at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios with multi-talented Ottawa bassist Marc Decho and rising-star Toronto drummer Sarah Thawer.

Ledbetter is best known on the Toronto music scene for CaneFire, his seven-piece Caribbean Latin jazz group. His newest project, though, is his jazz piano trio with award-winning Toronto musicians Rich Brown and Larnell Lewis. In June, the trio released its first album, Got a Light?, and on Saturday, Ledbetter, Decho, and Thawer will showcase music from that album here in Ottawa.

Got a Light? is an indirect reference to the Twin Peaks TV show, but Ledbetter said that he had other reasons for putting a question in the title.

“So naming the album with a question, automatically it’s involving the audience, right? We’re asking you something, so it makes you a part of it already. And “Got a Light?” obliquely refers to the idea of lighting something on fire, or perhaps lighting a fuse and blowing something up. So it refers to the energy, but again including the audience in a part of that. You’re not here to watch us blow up the stage. We would like you to help us,” he said, laughing.

"Playing music that draws people in and welcomes them in and includes them"

The album is designed to be accessible, both “something that musicians at a high level can get into and appreciate what we’re doing, but also something that anyone could listen to and connect with on some level and appreciate.”

Jeremy Ledbetter Trio CD cover (photo by Denise Grant)
Jeremy Ledbetter Trio: Got a Light? (photo by Denise Grant)

“So for me, one of the best compliments I can get is when someone says, 'I usually don’t like jazz but I love your album.' Because, in the world of jazz, we need to expand our audience, right? There’s no denying that that that is almost a desperate need that we have. We’ve got to be expanding our audience base. And the way we do that is by playing music that draws people in and welcomes them in and includes them. So I was trying to write music that would be enjoyable to listen to on more than just an intellectual level.”

Or on a visual level. Ledbetter describes his compositions as “cinematic”: not like a soundtrack to a film, but rather “music that would lead the listener to see things and imagine scenes” .

“For me a lot of music is telling specific stories or conjuring specific images for me. But the idea isn’t that it necessarily conjures the same images and stories in everyone. It’s more like abstract poetry that way, I guess.”

The importance of energy and passion

On the album, the trio's music is dramatic and varied, with piano, drums, and bass combining to create an energetic rush and a wide range of tempos and styles from fast Afro-Cuban to an improvised solo piano ballad. That “energy and passion” are particularly important in making music accessible, Ledbetter said.

“That's why I like playing with people like Sarah Thawer. I think jazz needs to be something that feels energetic and fresh and brings people in.”

Thawer is a recent graduate of York University's jazz program (Summa Cum Laude), and received the program's highest award, the Oscar Peterson Scholarship. She plays drum set, Brazilian percussion, flamenco Cajon, Latin percussion (congas, bongos, timbale), and Indian percussion (tabla, dholak, kanjira, dhol, ghatam, djembe, darbuka, udu pot). Her YouTube channel, SarahTDrumGuru, has more than 16,000 subscribers.

Ledbetter said he'd heard her play but this show will be his first time working with her. “She's one of the really exciting, up-and-coming, young drummers in the Toronto scene here. She’s doing great work. Her energy and her fun-loving nature, it’s really infectious whenever I see her play.”

He said they shared “a similar approach to playing music, which is like if you’re not having a blast, then it’s not worth bothering. Just don't come if you're not having fun!”

She's also a protégé of Ledbetter's regular trio drummer, Larnell Lewis. “He’s mentoring her. He’s grooming her to be the next big thing!”

Marc Decho is one of the real spark plugs of the Ottawa jazz scene. While most frequently heard playing Afro-Cuban jazz in Miguel de Armas' Latin Jazz Quartet, Decho's own projects have included the Sun Crescent Barbecue Stompers (New Orleans), 2React (hip-hop/jazz), his Warp'tet (Jaco Pastorius/John Coltrane tribute), and the Patterns of Change Quartet (jazz fusion). He also plays in many other local jazz groups.

He and Ledbetter first met in Ottawa a year ago, when Decho's trio opened for Mozambique saxophonist Ivan Mazuze, and Ledbetter was in Mazuze's band. Decho suggested a show together here, as he had with other Toronto musicians like Danae Olano, and Ledbetter was happy to agree.

“[It's] a great thing to be doing as a musician. There’s people out there that you want to make music with – just create an opportunity and make it happen. He’s doing what we all should be doing.”

Travelling to the sources of the music - right around the globe

While the trio's instrumentation is classic, Ledbetter describes the music they'll be playing at Record Runner as “anything but straight jazz. The mandate for this project was to make a jazz trio album anyway that didn’t sound like a jazz trio album.”

He deliberately tried to vary the sound of his compositions: “there’s one song that’s really Brazilian, there’s one that’s really Cuban, there’s one that’s a Tragically Hip cover, There’s one song that has some Batá [drums], and then there’s a few there that I don’t really know what they are in terms of classifying them.”

That's not surprising, given Ledbetter's extensive round-the-world musical adventures. He has a passion for learning new types of music on the ground, in the country where it was born, from the masters. “I spent a lot of my life travelling to all of those places, and seeking out the music, and teaching myself what makes it tick, and taking it apart and putting it back together and really learning it.”

In the decade from his mid-20s to mid-30s, he traveled almost constantly, “from the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, to deep in the Amazon in Venezuela, to the south of Brazil, to Burma, to Indonesia (Bali) learning Gamelan, in Cambodia learning Khmer music. Pretty far-flung.”

“The methodology is that I’d buy a plane ticket to a country that had music I’d want to learn, and that’s as far as the pre-planning goes. (laughing) I’d go wandering around and finding the masters, the best, and then I’d hang around them until they agreed to teach me something. Even if they don’t agree to teach me something, I’d just listen, you know, incessantly. So the last trip I did was to Marrakesh to learn Gnawa music. I studied with a master Gnawa musician for a couple of months.”

“But not in any formal way. It’s just sort of meeting musicians and finding them and meeting them informally and then asking them to teach me what they do.”

While he can speak four languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese), that didn't cover everyone he studied with. “But if we're just trying to communicate on that level as musicians, the spoken language is somewhat secondary. The musical language is what I was learning.”

Taking the music apart, and figuring out what everything does

In fact, he sees learning a musical genre and learning a language as very similar.

“To study a foreign language from scratch, you’ve got to break it down to the most basic elements of grammar: the basic words and understand how they go together. So when I go to a place to study its music, it’s about finding the source, the thing that all this music came from. And identifying that, and learning that. And then looking at how that extrapolated into whatever people are doing nowadays.”

While traveling, he could go for several months without playing a piano. “A lot of this music doesn't even use a piano. Gnawa music certainly doesn't. Traditional Afro-Cuban music doesn’t. When I’m expressing my voice as a musician, the piano is my major instrument, my major speaking voice. But in terms of learning the music, it wasn’t about learning how to play it on the piano, it was about learning how to play it. So I would study whatever instruments are being played.”

“It wasn’t really about teaching myself to become a master Batá drummer in Cuba or anything. It was about learning. I was studying the music almost the same way you would study a radio by taking it apart, and figuring out what everything does and making sure you’re able to put it back together and still work. So I would study, like in Brazil, a lot of percussion, pandeiro and atabaque. In Cuba, a lot of Batá.”

And the hands-on aspect, the muscle memory and the emotional memory, was essential. “I don’t think we can separate the analysis, the understanding of what’s going on [from] the actual act of doing it. I think if you try to separate those two things, it’s a wrong turn and you don’t end up really understanding it. You need to know what it feels like.”

It's not enough to analyze recordings, he said, because they may not reflect the real music, just as laid-back North American versions of reggae don't reflect the ferocity and aggressiveness of reggae played in Jamaica.

“So you can’t just analyze recordings or this snare on beat 2, you’ve got to feel it and understand it, immerse yourself in the culture so you understand where the music came from and why it’s being played the way it is. Just having conversations with people in a place can often help me understand the music better than playing the music can. Anyone who’s ever been in a room with say five or six Cuban men who are all speaking, having an argument about something, that helps you understand Cuban music better than any amount of music lessons because the music sounds just like that conversation sounds. Everybody’s talking really loud, really fast and angry (laughing). All at the same time.”

Ledbetter says he still travels now, but less frequently. “It’s ongoing, but I have two little girls now and I’m settled in Toronto.”

Jazz as an aesthetic, rather than a genre

So does he how fit all these influences into jazz? By considering jazz more as an aesthetic rather than as a sound or a genre, Ledbetter says.

“In the 50s, you could say 'jazz' and people knew what that sounded like. But now jazz is an approach to music. So if you’re playing music that has complex harmony, complex rhythm, like an emphasis on virtuosity and individual ability on the instrument, and improvisation, then that’s jazz. But it can sound like anything. It can sound like polka.”

“I think I came to jazz through the back door, so to speak. I’ve dabbled in a lot of different things over my life. But jazz was not a music that grabbed me and held on and drew me in. A lot of other things have done that, like Cuban music and Caribbean music and Venezuelan music and Brazilian music. Those are the things that I’ve been exposed to and actively made a decision like, 'This is what I need to do.' ”

“But I think then when it came time to start outputting something of my own, I think jazz just became the outlet, because jazz is a kind of music where one places a high priority on instrumental or individual virtuosity, there’s a lot of space for freedom of expression, it’s all about playing with musicians who are at the highest level of their instrument. So really it wasn’t the jazz that drew me in. It was that everything else drew me in. But then when I wanted to put something else back out there jazz was the vehicle that made the most sense.”

Jazz as it's meant to be heard

So what will the audience hear at Record Runner? “Original, modern, jazz played by three musicians who are just leaving it all out on the floor. And music that will hopefully take people on a journey through a lot of different sounds and a lot of different ways to hear this music that maybe they haven’t heard before.”

And most importantly, they'll hear the music from Ledbetter's album “the way it’s meant to be heard, which is performed live by humans you’re in the room with, and in a really intimate environment where you’ll be able to feel your teeth rattle when Sarah Thawer plays the drum solo. It’s the way it’s supposed to be felt: visceral.”

The Jeremy Ledbetter Trio (Ledbetter on keyboards, Marc Decho on electric bass, Sarah Thawer on drums) will perform in Live @ Record Runner, on Saturday, December 8, at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:30. Tickets are $25, and are available on the Record Runner website and at the door. The hall seats 35.

Get there! Record Runner Rehearsal Studios are located at Unit 6, 159 Colonnade Road South (between Prince of Wales Drive and Merivale Road [map]). OC Transpo route 89 stops by the building; route 80 stops on Merivale Road at Colonnade, 15-20 minutes walk away. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!