Tim Bedner waited decades before he felt fully ready to release his first CD this fall.
The Ottawa guitarist has been studying, teaching, and playing jazz for more than 25 years now, and has appeared on other musicians' recordings and in duo CDs with his wife, vocalist Elise Letourneau. He's one of the most active musicians on the Ottawa-Gatineau jazz scene, playing with a dizzying variety of artists and venues, as well as hosting a local monthly jazz jam.
But Of Light and Shadow is his first CD as leader and composer – at age 51.
However, the waiting had benefits. Independent reviewers have described the CD as “sonic exploratory, open ended and expansive with a warm natural sound”, and him as “the complete package as a guitarist, and is a skilled composer as well” and “a guitarist who plays with grace and style, never with a force”. A number of independent and college radio stations across Canada and the US have included the CD on their playlists.
The signal to record came to Bedner in late December of 2011, as he composed the four-part suite which opens the album. “Everything came together: the tunes and the idea. I almost feel like I didn't write it. It just came gushing out and I had the guitar in my hand and then was able to write it down at the time.”
He had considered recording an album for a number of years and friends and family had been asking for one, but “it just never really hit me hard enough.” But with the suite written, “I knew it was time.”
Enough chutzpah to enroll in Berklee
But this is a pattern Bedner has followed elsewhere in his life, particularly starting relatively late in life to study music.
Unlike most current jazz musicians, he has no background in high school jazz bands. “When I first started playing guitar, we had moved to a new school district [in] a new area in Pennsylvania. My father got a new job and we relocated about an hour and a half away from where I originally had grown up – and so had no friends. I was 17 years old, a junior in high school, and with nothing to do and not knowing anybody, I started picking up the guitar. I always liked to create stuff, to make my own chord progressions, to try to imitate people that I would hear or imitate songs, and of course learning songs. But I think I always had a thing for trying to write my own lyrics, chord progressions, melodies. When you grow up in a small town, you're self-sufficient, and I didn't have money to go buy lots of records or sheet music, so imitating and coming up with my own thing was a natural thing to do.”
It wasn't until age 24 that he had “enough chutzpah to enroll in Berklee [College of Music in Boston]. At the time they would pretty much take anybody in, if you could sell them on the fact that, yes, you could do this.
“Usually the attrition rate was very high for freshmen. They would last a semester or two. And then, if you weren't cut out for it or if it was really hard, you would drop out. And the drop-out rate at Berklee at the time was very, very high. But I had already been in the work force: I'd worked construction for six years, and dabbled with guitar and playing in rock bands. I decided that I'm not going to go back to working construction and pounding nails: I'm going to stick it out. So it was a tough go and there was a lot of baggage gathered through those years because of my non-musical background, and being around people that were very adept at this stuff.”
I wasn't a young, impressionable kid where I could be pushed around.
His biggest challenges included learning to read music and ear training and sight-singing. “Folks were saying that, 'I don't know if you're cut out to do this. You might think about doing something else.' And so that got my feathers ruffled – “I'll show them!” – and with my bull-headed nature, I just stuck it out.”
Because he worked his way through college, it took him over five years to get through, “which was actually a blessing in disguise because I had a chance to really internalize the stuff and really learn it, and get tutoring and study privately outside, and go back and do another couple semesters, save some money and go back, and eventually finished a degree.”
“I wasn't a young, impressionable kid where I could be pushed around. When you work construction, you work around pretty salty people, and you learn to put up with stuff and take care of your own turf. So I was able to say to these folks who were saying, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' … and just stick it out. And in my last few semesters at Berklee I actually won scholarships in my department, in my major, which was professional music and jazz composition, for being a diligent student and constantly learning. I was the first one in the class; I was the last one to leave; I was at all the functions [like] workshops and semester classes. Thinking about it now: wow, I had a lot of chutzpah!”
After Boston, Bedner moved to Pittsburgh with Elise Letourneau, where he got his Masters at Duquesne University. In 2006, they moved to Ottawa, where Letourneau has family connections.
Influenced by jazz composers
If one talks to Bedner for any length of time, the name Pat Metheny will come up, and, in fact, one of the songs on the album (“A.M. for P.M.”) is specifically dedicated to Metheny. “You cannot deny that he's an amazing voice in music, he's a prolific composer, he's a successful music business person, and he's well-respected in the industry, by his peers. I just think he's a great role model for me.”
“And, you know, it is his voice. And that's a hard thing to do on a musical instrument unless you really put the time in on it. And we can recognize Pat Metheny – one or two notes and I can. And he's worked hard for that. … It's very dangerous because I can listen to too much of him and then start to sound really a lot like him.”
But Bedner said his writing was influenced as much or more by Wayne Shorter, Jim Hall, and Sonny Rollins as it was by Metheny.
“I loved studying Wayne Shorter when I was in school – and Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. And I would have to say that a lot of the writing is from studying a lot of Wayne Shorter tunes. Wayne Shorter writes in a very contemporary way in the sense that he's not like a bebop musician or writing standards (typical 2-5-1 patterns that you would normally hear). So that was always very attractive to me: the ambiguous, ephemeral, you can't really put a stamp on that's in the key of XYZ. I liked that ambiguous sound. Although I certainly establish tonalities and stuff, but it doesn't stay there for long.”
Both Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall taught Bedner to solo like a composer, he said, “rather than playing this bebop lick here and this quote here, and this scale thing here, and this sequence here. They're really thinking motivically or compositionally.” And listening to these musicians play and tearing their music apart helped him innovate and find his own voice.
I certainly establish tonalities and stuff, but it doesn't stay there for long.
The album's title, and the names of several of the songs, were partially prompted by the shortness of the days in December when he composed the suite. “The idea of light and darkness was certainly there. I guess that helped prompt the name, to name the specific pieces, and also the album. It just seemed like that was a way to describe how I would envision light as a sound.”
The music reflects the balance of light and shadow, Bedner said. “I often can be susceptible to lack of light, and so I can get my moments of being blue and on the verge of depression. And so music has been a very helpful tool to help me cope with those things.”
“The tunes are not very predictable. They're different forms; they're different lengths. They're not symmetrical like 4 and 8-measure phrases or 32-measure form. The tunes are different and the chord progressions aren't very predictable: they're not like a typical jazz standard or a bebop tune.”
The harmonica surprise
Bedner started putting together the project in February. He originally envisioned it as a guitar trio plus saxophone, but the whole sound took an abrupt right turn when Normand Glaude – both the bassist and the engineer/producer on the album – tried an experiment.
Glaude took an already-recorded track, and overdubbed chromatic harmonica on it.
“And I came back the next day and he says, 'Check this out: look what I did to one of your tunes.' And he played harmonica on it, and my jaw hit the floor. I said 'Can you do this? For the whole album?' 'Oh, I think so.' And I totally just fell in love with it.”
“I've been such a big fan of Toots Thielemans. I just adore him. I just can't get enough of his sound. And there's just something lyrical and the harmonica works so well with the melodies, because I sang all of these melodies before I solidified [the music].”
Glaude had first learned to play diatonic harmonica at age 5, and played reels and jigs with his father at concerts at old age homes. He learned chromatic harmonica a few years later, and after a year or so, dropped it. The next time he touched a harmonica was in his late 20s, when he started playing again, enough to do one song for one friend. Then, after maybe two weeks of playing, the instrument went back in the drawer for many years.
But when Bedner first played the songs on the album for Glaude, Glaude said he immediately thought that the light melody of “A.M. for P.M.” would be enhanced by a light instrument like a harmonica. He downloaded an earlier version of the song from Bedner's website, and overdubbed harmonica. “I took the time to learn it properly and to do a decent version of it.”
I really wanted those solos to sound like they came from deep down in my heart - Normand Glaude
When Bedner was delighted and asked Glaude to play harmonica on the whole album, Glaude said, “then I panicked. … When you think of jazz harmonica, you immediately think of Toots. So for me the bar was very, very high, because I figured whoever hears this is going to say, 'Oh, Toots!' ”
Glaude tried to find a harmonica teacher, but unless he went to New York City, he could only get lessons from a Vancouver musician over Skype, and the sound quality wasn't good enough for working on sound. “So then I figured I had to do it myself, and so I'm lucky enough to have a recording studio, and to have all the tracks of Tim's album ready to go waiting for harmonica. So I simply practiced and practiced and used different microphones, different embouchure techniques until I found one that I was very pleased with.”
The guitar/bass/drum tracks had been laid down in recording sessions in the spring, Glaude said. His work with harmonica took about another three months, right up until the CD's release. “The difficulty was making it flow, making it sound good, and recording it.” One challenge was that typical guitar keys like E and A “are very tough to play on a chromatic harmonica. … Those keys are the ones where you use the slide the most, so that was my biggest challenge. The combination of notes in pieces like that meant that I had to work really hard to play those scales.”
In order to ensure he had proper feeling in his harmonica sections, Glaude said, “what I ended up doing was scatting a solo [along with a recording of a Bedner song], recording what I scatted, then lifting that, and then learning it on the harmonica. Because I really wanted those solos to sound like they came from deep down in my heart. I really wanted to play what I felt like playing, but I couldn't just blow it out. But I figured if I scatted it, it really came from me, came from what I would have played, say, on the bass or another instrument I'm comfortable on. But on harmonica I couldn't just get it out.”
Glaude said he thought the harmonica added a unique texture to the album. And, because he wasn't a virtuoso on harmonica, he had to work on “nice simple melodies and simple solos that weren't too long, that weren't taking all the room, that were essentially providing a great segue to an awesome guitar performance, by introducing a specific harmonic context with some texture that would essentially not make this album sound like 'Oh, here comes the guitar again', but actually supporting a very strong melodic content.”
“This was my number one thing. I didn't want to sound like the guitar, at all; I didn't want to play the same lines and I wanted to play something that would complement it very, very well, too. To give the listener some variety.”
Bedner said the time needed to add the harmonica “was certainly worth it. I knew right away 'this is it'. It was love at first sight or love at first hearing. I didn't care how long it would take because I knew it would be exactly what I wanted.”
Adding a strongly propulsive feel to several songs on the album is Ottawa drummer Jeff Asselin.
“I had played with Jeff a number of times over the years since we've been here and it's always fun playing with Jeff. I knew Norm was going to be an integral part of this project and talking with Norm about drummers, he just recorded Jeff doing a couple of other projects and he was just really happy with what Jeff was able to do and his ability to take direction and also be creative and had a lot of great energy.”
“Umbra”, the first piece on the album, “has this sort of primal energy that I wanted to try to emulate and tap into that sets the mood for the suite – the very raw, the very earthy primal sound, that low E, swelling up and then the motive coming in, lots of percussive things, and bells and screeches on the cymbals and of course Norm bowing on the bass creating this huge tone or that sound before it explodes into the rest of the suite."
One section of “Umbra” has a challenging 7/4 time signature, Bedner said. “I remember how excited [Asselin] was when I said 'Yes, I'd love to have you do a drum solo on the 7/4 part'. He was thrilled with that. It was intentional to get the energy flowing.”
Another notable song on the album is “Bluenote”: “a tribute to those great organ trio organ groups from the 60s and 70s like Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith, with guitar players like Wes Montgomery.” In one section, Bedner uses a rotary chorus simulator pedal to emulate the Leslie speakers that generally accompany Hammond B-3 organs.
“So that was me tipping my hat to my favourite grooves. I wanted the energy of those great organ groups: the hard bop sound, the funky jazz stuff.”
The oldest songs on the album are “Waltz for Elise” and “Sometimes Sadness”, which Bedner had played “over the years, but it was ripe to record them.” The latter song is in D minor, “the saddest of the keys”; it echoes sad experiences but modulates to a major key at the end, “showing that, yes, there's some hope going on.”
Bedner said that the melodies and initial chord progressions for the songs were pre-composed, but all the solos were improvised, “done live off the floor. It was a lot of work but I really went in with the idea of motive development and with strong melody ideas rather than just noodling and playing fast and lots of bebop licks. There's strong little melodic themes throughout all the improv... and wow, where did that come from?”
“There's a quote from Gary Burton: I see myself playing three choruses over this tune and how might I shape it? So I would find myself thinking along those lines : OK, I know I've given myself a certain amount of time to solo over this and how do I want to shape it?”
Bedner is frequently seen playing a custom-built seven-string guitar, especially when accompanying vocalists. It was completely absent, though, from this album. “Any time I have a gig with a bass player, it's six-string guitar. I would be too tempted to use the [low] seventh string and get in the way of the bass player if I brought it along. So this was all done on six-string: nylon-string, steel-string acoustic, and electric arch-top.”
The joys of guitar and bass together in concert
On November 3, Bedner will be making his first live presentation of the released album, in a duet with veteran double bassist John Geggie at GigSpace.
“So here I'm putting myself through another challenge. Instead of having a drummer and a larger group, it's just John and I doing this stuff as a duo. … I'll be bringing all three guitars with me, and I'll be changing guitars on tunes to keep the spirit of the recording although we won't have drums. It will be a little more intimate sound for sure, but I'm going to take that sound and see what happens.”
“John's keen on doing all this music. With his musicianship and skill, it's just going to be so easy for me because he makes playing with anybody so easy.”
In the first set, they will play seven of the nine songs on the album, including the four-song suite, as well as a tune called “More than Men” which Bedner and Letourneau wrote together.
The second set will consist of tunes which have been played by famous jazz bass-guitar duos. It's a project that Geggie and Bedner had discussed doing for a while, since “we don't get a chance to play these that often.”
Particularly prominent will be songs done by guitarist Jim Hall: for example, “Receipt Please” by and with Ron Carter. “It's an unison octave melody: they're very tricky and hairy to play, but, boy, they're awesome.”
To celebrate the pairing of Hall and bassist Red Mitchell, they're playing Hall's piece “Waltz New”, which is based on the chord changes to “Someday My Prince Will Come”, “but it's like a Bach étude through those chord changes”.
They'll also play “Scrapple from the Apple” which Hall played with Toronto's Don Thompson on bass.
Other pairings will include Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden, and Joe Pass and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (on “Tricotism” by bassist Oscar Pettiford). And less obviously: Paul McCartney and John Lennon, with the Beatles' “Norwegian Wood”.
"This is where I'm at"
The CD will be available for sale at the concert, and is also available through Compact Music and Alcorn Music Studios, as well as on-line on Bedner's website and at cdbaby.com, among other locations.
And Bedner is delighted to see it released.
“I'm so happy with this recording that I know I could probably listen to it in five or ten years and say 'Yes, this is where I'm at and this is an accurate representation.' It's musical.”
He's also happy to have his faith in the album verified by some good reviews and favourable comments he's heard from fellow musicians. “So I know I did the right thing.”
– Alayne McGregor