On Thursday, Moonglow Jazz Ensemble is offering jazz listeners a virtual cruise of the Méditerranean, bringing together a variety of jazz styles from the region, and revealing unexpected musical connections and juxtapositions between composers, musicians, and song titles.
For them, developing Jazz Méditerranée has been a long journey: 18 months of teamwork researching, arranging, deciphering, rehearsing, and polishing the music.
“We’ve discovered this goldmine of incredible music that you never hear in Ottawa. So we’re so excited,” said their researcher, arranger and saxophonist Devon Woods. “We have so much fun with this. We’re thrilled to be able to share it.”
“It was really, really great to discover all those great tunes and great musicians that we never heard about,” said Hélène Knoerr, Moonglow’s bassist and vocalist.
For example, one of their Italian stops on the musical tour came out of a Renaissance style album which Moonglow's guitarist, Ed Stevens, had listened to and told the group about, Knoerr said. She was especially impressed by musicians from North Africa, from the Maghreb area: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, Lebanon.
“We found some amazing musicians who were very well known in France and Europe like this Oud player from Tunisia, Anouar Brahem. He is very well-known in France. He plays with jazz musicians and a lot of other people. A trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf from Lebanon, he plays with Sting and a lot of other well-known musicians in France including some jazz musicians.
But they also wanted to bring in as many jazz tunes as they could, as well as the compositions by Méditerranean musicians.
“So this is where we started to meld things together. So we call our tune “Parfum de Caravan” and basically we’ve tagged on the end of it once we go through the Brahem tune, we segue subtly into Duke Ellington’s "Caravan". And so it’s trying to connect the titles and the themes of these regions with the different tunes that we find. It’s really exciting and really fun.”
Jazz Méditerranée is the latest in Moonglow’s themed shows. “Moonglow goes to New York” (2018) took its inspiration from the subway lines (think "Take the A Train"), and “Le monde de George Brassens / The World of Georges Brassens” at BDT in 2018 was a tribute to the iconic French composer and vocalist. [OttawaJazzScene.ca's review of that show].
“We’ve been playing together at Moonglow for five or six years and we realized that we’d play over the same things. We’d maybe introduce some new tunes, but it doesn’t give us the same momentum and objective as when we come across [a] theme that unifies what we’re doing,” said Woods.
“We’d do a night of Cuban music, back five or or six years ago, a night of Brazilian music. We had a French one. But these are pretty general. Lots of people do that kind of thing.”
They took a new approach with their New York-themed show.
“I guess it was shortly after a visit that Hélène and I had taken to New York. We spent all of our time going to jazz clubs for a week. It was amazing. We took the subway a lot. So when we came back we were very interested in all the locations we had been to and all of the jazz music written about New York, some of which we hadn’t heard of, but many of which we’ve never tried to play. Some of them are challenging as well, so it gave us an interest to pursue that.”
Besides songs like “Take the A Train” which they'd played many times, they added songs like “Summer in Central Park” by Horace Silver and “Central Park West” by John Coltrane. “These are ones that are more difficult and more interesting and so once we realized we had this very cool repertoire, we came up with the idea, Let’s have a New York gig and let’s theme it on the subway lines.”
“It really put a lot of energy into our own playing and our own practicing. It gave us a goal. And I think for the audience, the people who come and see us, it also provided something new and different. They were coming to a show rather than just to see Moonglow again. So I think it was good on both fronts,” said Woods.
One of the songs in Jazz Méditerranée was a new type of challenge to Knoerr, as it may be for listeners.
“We didn’t find very many vocals at the beginning and we like to make sure Hélène's voice is well-represented in our repertoire,” said Woods. “And she was saying ‘It’s OK, we have other types of music we play with lots of vocals.' But eventually we found some very interesting ways, including her singing a song in Moroccan Arabic.”
That song has certain sounds which are difficult to pronounce.
“Hélène is actually a phonetician by training. She understands the articulation of sounds. She knows how to transcribe them in very precise terms, and she can pronounce them pretty effectively. And so we had this Moroccan friend of mine come over and we listened to this tune together, transcribed it into phonetic script so it was readable, and then had her critique it,” Woods said.
“And she said ‘There’s a couple of sounds that Hélène had a difficult time with – they’re way down in the throat that are characteristic of Arabic’, so we actually substituted a word. There’s one line that says ‘I want to see you in my heart’. We changed ‘heart’ to ‘eyes’ because the word is easier to pronounce.”
Knoerr expanded: “Also the way I was singing it - it’s a very guttural sound - the way I’m singing, I’m actually saying ‘dog’ instead of ‘heart’. So we had to find a different word! There was no way ‘dog’ was going to do the job for those lyrics.”
“It’s great that my Ph.D. in phonetics is actually being useful for my music. That’s how I learned Portuguese. I sing in Portuguese when we do our bossa nova [shows]. Then I look up what it means because I need that. That’s how I approach it.”
The challenging Moroccan Arabic is only one of the languages that will Knoerr will sing in. She will also sing in French, English, Italian and Sicilian.
“The most challenging countries were the Arab countries, because everything is so different - the time signatures, the scales, the sense of melody and harmony. The percussions are also very challenging - these pieces often feature three or four percussionists!” Knoerr said. Moonglow only has one drummer, Chris Smith.
All of Moonglow's members collaborated in bringing this show together, using their complementary skills.
For example, Woods said, they were at first discouraged by a Moroccan tune called “Lik”. "We thought, there’s no way we can do this – it’s so hard to sing and hard to get the feel that they have, or the percussion, because we just have one drummer. But everyone just works together. The drummer has very good suggestions about what he can do then Ed [Stevens] comes up with little tweaks – and it always blows my mind working with musicians. You can make some seemingly tiny changes that shouldn’t make a difference at all and it completely turns the piece around and turns it into a successful piece. So a lot of development of the piece happens during our practices, so it ends up being quite different if you like, or much better, by the end of a few practices compared to when we first sit down with the arrangements.”
“Everybody in the group has different strengths. There’s actually no leader. People have different areas they like to work more in more. I love and have the time to play around with the arrangements and work out things so I do that. Ed has such musical ability so he brings that to it. Hélène brings the bass parts and the vocals as well as her ideas about how to put things together in the form of a program and a map. And our drummer has suggestions about things can be handled. It really feels like we’re all totally equals in terms of the group.”
They transcribed some of the music, he said. “I do a little but but I’m not an expert at it, especially when it comes to the chord structure. But I have a good ear. So I can pick out melodies and whatever. Hélène has a very good understanding of timing because she had some classical training when she was young. So I figure out what the notes are, she figures out exactly where to put them in the bar. Then we have Ed, who is a professional musician who toured Europe as a violin player with this group called Tafelmusik. They’re a very well-known group of classical musicians. So his background is music is very strong. He can sit down and work things out very clearly.”
While Woods prepares in advance for their rehearsals, the music “evolves organically as we practice together. One of the things we’re very lucky with is having a group of musicians who get along really well and have a great time together.” .
“Our practices typically end with a lovely spread of cheeses, charcuterie, and a couple of nice bottles of wine,” Knoerr adds.
For this show, they’ve also brought in Andre Van Schyndel, playing accordion and 12-string guitar.
“We knew what he could contribute because of the feel of the show and because of his ability as a guitarist and an accordion player, we really thought he would contribute a lot,” said Knoerr. “There’s actually some really essential part of the tunes, that without the accordion they wouldn’t work at all. But also the 12-string guitar, some of the Arabic stuff, North African stuff, it sounds fantastic.”
Moonglow’s show also includes music originating from darker experiences, yet unquestionably Méditerranean.
“The decision to include pieces that are more political in nature was not something that we meant to do from the start,” Knoerr said.
“It naturally evolved as we delved more into the music, which of course is often inspired by composer's own experiences, whether beautiful or tragic. It was also a way to give a fuller picture of the Mediterranean - not just an idyllic postcard, but also a depiction of reality. And yes, of course, it is in line with our own values, both as individuals and as a group.”
One song, "Croisières Méditerranéenes", is by French singer Bernard Lavilliers. It deals with the plight of refugees coming in from Syria and going through the Mediterranean, searching for countries that will welcome them.
“Bernard Lavilliers, he is probably 70 years old now and always been an activist. I started listening to him when I was 14 years old. He’s a guitar player, he’s a composer. And he’s always been an activist. Very much involved in criticizing. Being an advocate for the poor, the weak, being very vocal about social issues and political issues.”
“If you listen to the lyrics, it’s really, really harsh. It’s very graphic description, serious and poetic and beautiful but terrible at the same time because it’s such a tragedy. I translated Lavilliers' lyrics for my fellow band members so that they could fully grasped the extent of the tragedy he depicts.”
The group had watched YouTube versions of many of the tunes as inspiration, although they were not planning to exactly copy the arrangements. The video of Lavilliers' tune in particular had a very strong political message.
“So we’re not shying away from that. we’re trying to have fun but there’s a serious side to it as well,” Woods said.
“We wanted to include that, not just be a shiny love boat thing,” said Knoerr.
But what the group is primarily hoping their audience will enjoy is being introduced to jazz tunes they mostly haven't heard before.
“There’s only a limited number of tunes that everybody plays, and at some point you’re kind of tired of playing the same things and you want to try something different. Something you don’t hear all the time and that the audience doesn’t hear all the time either,” said Knoerr.
“We’re trying to engage with our audience, and to build our relationship and to create some kind of energy and we feel off that energy when we play. If it’s always the same tunes that everyone’s heard a gazillion times then you don’t get that level of excitement and engagement.”
Moonglow will present Jazz Méditerranée at Live! on Elgin on Thursday, May 30, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Advance tickets are available on the Live! on Elgin website.
Live! on Elgin is at 220 Elgin Street (near Lisgar Street). It's on the second floor: look for the doorway leading to a steep stairway going up. Be aware that the current construction on Elgin Street may require more walking to get to the venue.
OC Transpo routes 5 and 14 stop nearby, or you can take any Transitway route and walk about 5 blocks south from the Metcalfe stop. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!