René Gely with Pulse Mondiale at Brookstreet Hotel Options Lounge. ©Brett Delmage, 2010
René Gely with Pulse Mondiale at Brookstreet Hotel Options Lounge. ©Brett Delmage, 2010

René Gely came to Ottawa a few years ago, after living in cities around the world. He often plays jazz, but his musical interests are far wider than that – and that's particularly evident with his group Pulse Mondiale, which will be appearing at the NAC Fourth Stage on Thursday, February 2. The show opens the 2012 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival.

There's a bit of jazz, there's some Brazilian music, there's Hungarian melodies: Pulse Mondiale's sound is an amalgam of many influences, but the overall feel is warm and friendly. It's defined, if anything, by Gely's vocals and guitar and Rob Graves' wide range of percussion, but it also can encompass many other instruments, as you can hear on Pulse Mondiale's most recent album, Testament, released in December, 2010. editor Alayne McGregor talked with Gely recently about Pulse Mondiale and how it came about, what to expect at the concert, and his future plans. The interview is available as a podcast [mp3, 21 min] , and we've also transcribed it here. This is a Pulse Mondiale concert, correct? How is that different from a regular René Gely concert?

René Gely: I guess it's more disciplined and more focused. Sometimes I like to just experiment and play with lots of different repertoire and different musicians and throw things up against the wall and see what sticks. But if I do this as the band, then it's really going to be something that's more focused and stuff that I have recorded or plan to record or that I'm a little bit deeper into.

OJS: I've heard you as Pulse Mondiale a number of times, and the two things that always seem to define the Pulse Mondiale sound are you and your guitar, and Rob Graves and his incredible assortment of percussion. Is that correct?

Gely: Very perceptive of you, Alayne [laughing]. Yes I would say it really centres around those two sounds. And then we've had the good fortune of having Evandro Gracelli live here, the Brazilian guitarist and singer. He was thrown into the mix for quite some time. I've also worked with bass players and, for this gig, I'm very happy that, besides Rob, there's Mike Tremblay on sax and Martin Newman on bass, who would be what I would consider the A-Team and the guys that I'm always very happy to see on a stage.

OJS: You said on your website that one of the things that inspired you for your last CD was singing more over the last couple years. Is that something that people will hear in the concert?

Gely: Sure. In fact, I'm going to have Renée Yoxon come as a special guest, so she's going to sing a duo that originally was sung by me and Evandro; it's called "Tem Quem Queira", a little Brazilian folksong. I'm going to work that up with her, and then we're going to do a Bob Marley song to finish the show. Also her significant other, Craig Pedersen, is going to come in and play some trumpet.

And I have another special guest, who's a Brazilian musician named Sylvio Modolo who plays bass with the Florquestra Brasil. He's kind of an interesting guy, because, every time I've heard Sylvio on different occasions, he's played  different instruments. I've seen him play fretless bass very well, and then one time I heard him play rhythm guitar with just a great groove, and then I've heard him sit down and play piano really well. Every time I compliment him, he goes, "Oh René, I'm not really a musician. I'm not a professional musician." He works for Bell; he installs cable, probably with a lot of groove. He's just a natural musician, and a very sweet, capable guy.

And he's going to be bringing ... I think he's going to be playing on two or three pieces. On one piece, he's going to bring a guitar that I've never seen or heard of before, which is called a viola guitar, which is a four double-stringed guitar, that I think maybe resembles a Tres, the Cuban guitar. I'd never seen or heard of this before; it just sounds beautiful. So he's got that on one song; he's going to play accordion on a Brazilian folksong called "Mora na Roca" which is on the CD. And I think he's going to play a little cavaquinho on an original of mine.

So it should be an interesting show with lots of different people getting up. And I think we're going to keep it spontaneous and kind of fun, and [with] the Latin, South American vibe. I think that's why they hired me, because they call it "Baby, it's cold outside".

OJS: One of the things I noticed, listening again to Testament, is how warm, and friendly the whole vibe generally of that album is. It's a happy CD overall. Will this concert reflect a lot of the material that was on Testament?

Gely: Yes. I think I'm playing nine or ten tunes. eight of them are off the record, and two of them are new pieces that I've discovered. One of them is called "Forro Brasil" by Hermeto Pascoal.

OJS: When did you first really get interested in Latin music?

Gely: I think it would have been in 2003 or 2004, when I was in San Francisco, and a luthier installed a pickup in my nylon-string guitar. And once I heard my nylon-string guitar nicely amplified, because prior to that, for about 10 or 15 years, I bought every possible kind of pick-up and microphone system and they all – the technology wasn't there to amplify a nylon-string guitar, like an electric guitar or even a steel string. And so I was frustrated because that's my primary guitar, and the primary sound I love, and I was always forced to play electric guitar which I like, but I don't love.

And once that pickup was installed, then I just got a sound together. And once you have a sound, then it leads you to find the music to play whether you write it yourself or arrange it. I just put together a band very quickly in San Francisco with a bass player and a really good percussionist from Peru. And I just started looking for material to play. Naturally with a Peruvian percussionist and a nylon-string guitar, you're going to go Latin, or South American.

OJS: Were there any particular CDs you listened to, or people you heard live who inspired you?

Gely: Sure. Egberto Gismonti. Actually, when I met Evandro, I asked him at one point if he could give me a CD with just some unusual Brazilian music or stuff that you wouldn't normally find like the typical Jobim or Gilberto Gil, the stuff that is more internationally known –  sort of off the beaten track. And he came back with a CD with like 187 songs on it. I was just blown away. There were lots of people that I discovered there: there was a Brazilian pianist named Andre Mehmari who's  amazing. He's a classically-trained pianist, but he's a great arranger, and just a very, very tasteful improviser. There was another guy named Edu Lobo who's beautiful – an incredible melodist. I'd never heard of him before. And a chromatic harmonica player called Gabriel Grossi who I transcribed one or two pieces from and he plays chromatic harmonica like Art Tatum plays piano. I mean, just ridiculous technique. And I'd never heard of him before!

I'm always searching for things that are off the beaten track, as you will.

It's hard, though, because there's a lot of music you might like, but you can't necessarily incorporate into your sound or into your playing. For instance, Rob's African music: he's given me lots of CDs with African music, and I love listening to African music. But I can't find a way to make it work with what I do. There's something there culturally – maybe I'm a white guy who can't keep time, huh? [smiling] – but I don't think it's necessarily that. I just think that maybe the Brazilian music and the Cuban music is easier to access because there's been a European influence there: the Spanish influence, and there's a classical background that's in there that makes it easier for me to grasp. Whereas the African music is really … I've played with African musicians before: it's another world! To really play like that or to get into that type of music, you really have to go to a country and live there and go deep into the culture. I don't think you can just start playing some songs.

René Gely plays melodeon at Brookstreet Hotel Options Lounge, with Evandro Gracelli looking on. ©Brett Delmage, 2010
René Gely plays melodeon at Brookstreet Hotel Options Lounge, with Evandro Gracelli looking on. ©Brett Delmage, 2010

OJS: What was it like playing with Evandro? How did that influence your sound?

Gely: It was interesting. He's a beautiful musician. Everything he did was very musical. What I found is that they're very natural – Silvio's the same way. Music for them is something that they don't get all angst-ridden about or neurotic or twisted; it's just something that seems to be part of their culture and natural expression that I don't think most Western musicians get to that level.

So yes, it was really fun. It was interesting because I thought that he would have a real scholarly or academic or correct way of playing Brazilian music but, in fact, he treated it just as shamelessly as I do.

I just play by feel – and that counts more than whether you know umpteen bossa nova rhythms and play them in the appropriate song. I guess there's a musicologically correct way to do all these things, but I'm really not interested in that. Because then it becomes more of an academic thing and I think I just want to feel the music. And if I feel it well, I'm going to express it well, and I think that will communicate to the audience.

OJS: So what turns your crank, then, is more of an emotional connection to the music?

Gely: Yes. It's just finding ... I can listen to a hundred songs and like many of them, but as I'm listening and trying to find things to play, you come across a song that just ... shouts at you, that completely seduces you. Then I know almost instantly: when I hear something and I have to hear it again, and again, and again, I know I'm going to find some use for that song.

So there have have been lots of interesting songs that I've found that I have not yet been able to record – for instance, a great Cuban song by Arsenio Rodriguez called "Tres Marias" that's just incredibly catchy. I think I played it at the last – it was the final tune for the Cafe Paradiso show you were at. People respond to it, too.

OJS: You're known as a performer, you're known as an arranger, and you're known as a composer. Which of those turns your crank more – or is it all three?

Gely: They're all different. I love arranging pieces: it's fun when someone else gives you a piece, like doing Renée Yoxon's CD was an enormous amount of fun. You get to leave your fingerprint or your stamp on a piece of music, and yet you're already given the harmony and the melody and the structure, although you can mess with all three of those things. But you've got something already to work with.

It's easier than, say, composing. Composing you're starting with that blank page which is ... And I always found when I write something, I just don't have any  perspective. I don't know if it's any good or bad. And that's why it's good to get out and perform it and play it, because you can really see pretty quickly when you  play with other musicians and an audience if something works or it doesn't. And pieces I thought really were not working, or weren't worth playing: I've often been surprised that they've had a really good reception.

It's so easy to be overly self-critical with composing, because if you play classical music and you look at that Johannes Brahms guy or Villa-Lobos or Debussy – what are you doing, writing?

I think even Brahms burned hundreds of pages of his own music – all his early stuff. He threw it in the fireplace.

OJS: On Testament, most of the pieces are relatively short, at least for jazz pieces. Was that deliberate? Or is that just what felt right for you when you were picking the music and composing?

Gely: Well, because a lot of the pieces are coming from more of a folk song repertoire, they don't lend themselves to really extended treatment.

And, I find for myself, most pieces of music, if they go past five or six minutes, it has to be compelling. At that point, every minute after five or six minutes, you'd better really have something to say, or some kind of an arrangement that is moving and changing and going to make the seventh or eighth minute... God knows if you go past that: it just gets harder and harder to really make everything hang together.

If you look at most really good jazz recordings: Charlie Parker never played anything that lasted more than three or four minutes that I can think of. I'm not talking about live recordings, but all those Savoy things. I like being concise – except when I speak [grin].

OJS: How many CDs had you done before Testament?

Gely: My first recording was in Paris with an Irish singer, and that was original atmospheric ECM-ish folk. Very slow and sad and melancholic, as the Irish can be. But it was an interesting CD because the producer had a lot of money and I had carte blanche, so I booked string quartets and trumpets in good studios, and so for me it was a great learning experience.

Then I did a Pulse Mondiale mini-EP, a seven or eight-song CD in San Francisco with the Peruvian percussionist and bassist. And then Testament.

OJS: You've done a lot of work with the Brazilian musicians in the Ottawa-Gatineau area. How do you think the jazz scene in Ottawa and Gatineau has influenced what you've been able to do with Pulse Mondiale?

Gely: Just having the venues to play allows you to develop.

I didn't really perform a lot in Paris because there were not a lot of venues. I didn't get in a lot of good working situations so I was mostly teaching and recording. Really, I think I would play four or five gigs a year. And I knew lots of other really, really good musicians in Paris who were in the same boat. It depends if you grew up there, and went to university there and have a lot of friends and are connected. If you're not, it is really, really almost impossible to get into the scene there. And even – I took lessons with [saxophonist] Steve Lacy and he almost never played in Paris. He would play once or twice a year. And when they hired a jazz program director for the Conservatory, they didn't hire him, which was, for me, shocking, because that guy was one of the greats. Why wouldn't you throw that bone his way?

Having come to Ottawa, what's great is that lots of places like Alex [Demianenko] at the Café Paradiso has been great at giving me work, which spurs me on to write, and hire musicians, and find people to play with. And playing at the Brookstreet Hotel, and private gigs, and corporate stuff: there's just a lot of work.

OJS: And the interaction with the audience helps you understand what works and what doesn't?

Gely: Absolutely. That's vital.

OJS: At the concert on Thursday, what should people listen for in particular?

Gely: If you haven't heard it before, or if you don't know the CD or the music, then you're not going to know what to expect. There's going to be Hungarian gypsy songs, there's going to be some folk songs, there's going to be a Creole piano piece from Guadeloupe, there's going to be some of my original pieces, there's going to be a Bob Marley tune, there's going to be Brazilian folk songs. It's a very varied programme, but I like to think that maybe my arranging or my choice of material, and also the sound of the guitar and the percussion gives it cohesion. I hope it hangs together.

OJS: And it's jazz in that ...

Gely: Yes, there's lots of improvisation. Another reason that I got involved with this was because playing mainstream jazz: it's very hard to find a personality in all of that, because so much of it has already been done. It's very hard to write anything that's going to sound personal in that style. I just find as a player, while I love playing standards and playing jazz, I wouldn't put that out as my own project. I like doing it in other musical situations, but if I'm going to invest time and energy and money to produce CDs, and put all this [energy] to get something going, I just see that as being ...  It's like if you're in California in 1920 and trying to get some gold out of the river: "No, no, no - that was 60 years ago!"

OJS: So let's look for something different, something new, something wider as an inspiration?

Gely: Absolutely. Still keeping it loose and keeping it improvised, because that's why I'm not trying to do something that's an ethnological, folkloric, exact reproduction, because most of that music isn't really improvised. And I'm not Brazilian, and I'm not Hungarian, and not Creole, so I'll just meet it half-way.

OJS: What are your plans for the next year or so?

Gely: Just keep going. I don't think I'm going to record anything this year because it's costly in time and consuming effort. I would see doing a CD every three years. But the main thing right now is to keep writing, keep arranging. I found lots of new material that fits into this bag. I'm also – Alex most graciously offered me a month at the Café Paradiso, a month of Thursdays that I can do anything I want with. And I think I'm going to do something different with that; I think I'm actually going to try and put together a piano trio and write a lot of original music and do something that's more ECM, it's sort of in that bag. Because I've got some compositions in that field, and I'd like to just maybe do something in a completely different setup and stylistic thing that I still love – that record label and that sound and that approach to music is something I love.

Listen to the podcast [mp3, 21 min]

Pulse Mondiale opens the 2012 Winter Jazz Festival on Thursday, February 2 at 7 p.m., at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage.
More information here.