Growing up in the interior of British Columbia, Ottawa trumpeter Craig Pedersen heard a lot of country and cowboy music. In fact, one of the towns he lived in, Williams Lake, has the second-largest Stampede in Canada.

And while Pedersen's musical tastes have long since veered to jazz, classical, and free improvisation, he's always had fond memories of the music he heard in that “dusty cowboy town” during his most important childhood years. 

The album cover, by Ottawa artist Dave Cooper.
The album cover, by Ottawa artist Dave Cooper.
When he was recording his quartet's CD, Days Like Today, in 2011, he proposed including the Willie Nelson ballad, “Crazy”. The group played it, considered it, and told Craig that it sounded better as a duet between him and the bassist, Joel Kerr.

And that's how that song instead ended up in the middle of Pedersen's and Kerr's new duo album, It's a Free Country.

The album is being officially released this week with a six-city tour starting Tuesday in Quebec City, followed by Trois-Rivieres, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, and finally Ottawa on Sunday. The Ottawa show will be part of the IMOO (Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais) series that Pedersen co-created and still organizes.

Pedersen describes the album as a “bridge between traditional music and free improvisation, both to the listeners and performer, providing a vehicle for expression and connection not always otherwise available independently in these styles.”

“Both Joel and I love music so much and we love so many different types of music, and I think for us the lines are very, very, very blurry. I think one of the reasons Joel and I get along is that we both have a strong classical background, but in that classical background, we've played a lot of jazz music, we've played rock music and folk music, and contemporary music, and contemporary classical. And so for us, there was never a question of being lines or divisions between these different types of music. So the thing that both of us actively pursue is improvised music, and so why not also improvised music and folk music?”

In other words, it's cowboy music – and free improv – as you haven't heard it before.

The album's been in the works for almost 18 months, with the initial tracks recorded at the beginning of 2012, and the final ones about a month ago. Besides “Crazy”, it includes short interludes of other traditional cowboy tunes like “Oh Bury Me Not”, “Get Along, Little Dogies”, and “Goodbye, Old Paint”. Those are played straight – or at least as recognizably as you can get with only trumpet and bass, and no guitar, vocals, or Stetson.

But the other longer pieces allow the two to go off in distinctly non-traditional directions.

“The roles can be so much more flexible when there's just two of us. I don't think that we deliberately chose to make Joel sound like a guitar or anything like that, but we were trying to go for a broad spectrum of sounds. We tried to get as much out of the kind of different sounds that this duo could make. There are times when I for instance tried to play like a drummer. In the second to last tune, “Purple Home”, while Joel's taking a bass solo, I'm trying to sound like a snare drum.”

With only two musicians, the sound was inevitably going to be somewhat sparse, he said. “But also it's one of the freedoms of improvised music this freedom of experimentation. And because we're both using a lot of extended techniques, we fill up the space in very different ways. And it's also a big challenge, because we're not necessarily having to be reliant on the fact that there's just two of us. So there's no drummer to keep the time, there's no piano player to imply the harmony and the different mix. So anything that we do has to be of our own choice, but it also means we have a lot more flexibility and freedom to go off on tangents.”

Pedersen figured Willie Nelson would still recognize his tune even in this CD's version: “I think he would recognize it fine because the melody is prevalent. Would he like it? That's a whole different thing. But I think that the thing that we went for is not taking these so far that it wasn't recognizable. The only piece on it that there could be doubts about is “Wildwood Flower” because we basically played the harmonies most of the time on that piece. But if you listen to the Carter Family version of “Wildwood Flower” and then listen back [to ours] it's pretty clear it's the same tune.”

In choosing and playing the music, Pedersen said, he and Kerr “tried to make it funny. I think we tried to imbue a sense of humour into it.”

But they were, to a certain extent, fighting the nature of cowboy music. “A lot of these old country tunes are just kind of sad. A lot of them are about loss or hard times or things like that. And I think that without even really trying, just putting together an album of this music is going to come across as being quite melancholy.”

The making of this album could almost be considered a series of coincidences, starting with how Pedersen and Kerr first met – out west in 2006 in a free jazz big band. “I really liked the way he played but I didn't really know him.”

Then Pedersen moved to Ottawa, and Kerr to Montreal, and Pedersen needed a bass player for his quartet, and “remembered he played the kind of music in the way I was interested in.”

And so started more than two years of collaboration, in Pedersen's quartet and other settings. And somewhere in those years they started to think about making a duo record. “Joel and I just have a shared love of Johnny Cash and other country music, and I think it was just one day I spontaneously said 'Let's do a country record'. And he said 'OK.' ”

Another coincidence was the inclusion of the three short cowboy songs: they were inspired by Pedersen finding “some really delightful beginner piano sheet music, basically. And we worked with them from there.”

And the album cover came about because of a chance meeting at Dave's Drum Shop, where Matt Ouimet (who also mixed and mastered It's a Free Country) works. Several years ago, Pedersen dropped off one of his CDs to Ouimet at the store. At the time, Ottawa artist Dave Cooper was also visiting the store, and Ouimet introduced them.

“And I got an email from Dave maybe the same day, saying 'I can't believe I listened to you talk about that record and I didn't say, 'Hey, can I buy one? Can I buy all of your records?'”

Cooper started coming to some of Pedersen's shows, and they became friends – well before Pedersen realized the breadth of Cooper's work as an artist and an animator. Pedersen ended up playing solo trumpet sets at several of Cooper's gallery openings, in Ottawa and in New York City.

Pedersen knew what he wanted for the album's cover – caricatures of himself and Kerr drawn in a street art style. He asked Cooper's advice on how he should do the cover – on the assumption that he would draw it himself. “And [Cooper] said, 'Well, why don't I just do the cover?'”

He produced a sepia-tinged caricature: a satirical look at the two playing their instruments on the back of a saddle horse, with lots of cowboy iconography. Pedersen and Kerr were so pleased with what Cooper produced that they decided it deserved to be on a full CD, not just the 18-minute EP they had originally planned. “We realized that it would be a missed opportunity to leave it so short.”

That humorous bent is also reflected in the album's title track, Pedersen said, which has the only vocals on this album. Those vocals only repeat one phrase: “It's a free country, but only for me”. They bookend the album: sung by only the duo in the first track, and by a full choir in a reprise in the last track.

Pedersen said the phrase was “mildly political, and it's satirical. This idea that there's people always fighting for what their version of what a free country is. Of Canada being a free place, of the States being a free place, but the second anybody does something that goes slightly against what they're interested in, suddenly it's only free for them. It's just simply that: it's a funny lyric.”

He said he and Kerr wrote the phrase in 10 minutes. “We just kept repeating, 'It's a free country. It's a free country _blank_.' and then listed off about 15 different things. And finally that came."

But he pointed out that this satire was fully in the tradition of improvised music. “I think it's important to recognize that improvised music has a history of both humour and politics: I think a really great example is [trumpeter] Lester Bowie, of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He's a really great example of somebody who was extremely funny and satirical in his work, but the AACM in Chicago are a fiercely political entity. And I think that improvised music has always had that in there. If we can connect into that, even in a slight bit through satire, I think it's a important connection to the legacy.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Craig Pedersen and Joel Kerr will premiere It's a Free Country in a tour across Quebec and Ontario this week:

  • June 11, 9 p.m.: Le Fou-Bar, Quebec
  • June 12, 9 p.m.: Le Zenob, Trois-Rivieres
  • June 13, 9 p.m.: Café Resonance, Montréal
  • June 14, TBA: The Grand, Kingston
  • June 15, 7:30 p.m.: The Tranzac Club (with Ryan Butler), Toronto
  • June 16, 7 p.m.: IMOO at the Umi Café, Ottawa

Also playing at each show will be Bean, which features Marie-Claire Durand on piano, Joel Kerr on bass, and Mark Nelson on drums.