David Braid performs acupuncture on the Café Paradiso piano. ©Brett Delmage, 2011
David Braid performs acupuncture on the Café Paradiso piano. ©Brett Delmage, 2011
David Braid
CD Release Tour - Verge
Saturday, March 12, 2011
Paradiso, Ottawa

Jazz pianist David Braid has a formidably varied CV. He's played with symphony orchestras, the Canadian Brass,  in improvisational duos with cellist Matt Brubeck and clarinetist Phil Nimmons, with his own sextet, and in many other groups with the best of Toronto jazz players. He also is on the music faculty at the University of Toronto.

And that was all evident in his two sets Saturday night at Café Paradiso.

Braid took his repertoire from his last two albums: Verge, his just-released solo piano CD, and Spirit Dance, the collaboration he released in late 2010 with the Canadian Brass.

It was jazz, but complex jazz with a distinctly chamber tint. It reflected Braid's initial comment that he was a firm believer in harmony, melody, rhythm, and form: all the elements that have been part of music for hundreds of years.

In the first set, the ballad "Semi-Unconditional" had overtones of late 19th/early 20th century composers like Debussy or Satie in its initial sweet tones, and then moved into a deeper, slower movement. "Interior Castles", inspired by a famous book of devotions by Saint Teresa of Avila, was multi-layered: a steady progression, continued elaborations of the same base melody but slightly different each time.

In the second set, "Wash Away" had two sources: the music of Ray Charles (inspired by the movie Ray), and a nocturne by Frederic Chopin. What if they had met? Braid asked. The result started out as a slow waltz, but added a gospel / soul feel within the more formal structure, for an unexpected combination which worked.

But what I found even more interesting were Braid's other influences. In honour of the solo piano genre, he opened the evening with his piece "Le Phare" (The Lighthouse), which was inspired by Brad Mehldau. It was remarkable (and a bit eerie) how he captured a classic Mehldau sound, without actually copying any one piece. I think it might have been the repeated low-level pattern from one hand, with the angular, sparse melody from the other. Braid followed that with a deconstruction of Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight", in which he improvised on the rhythm while keeping the chord progressions. The result was recognizable but shattered into many pieces. He also used a six-second drum fill beat (the "amen beat" originally devised in 1969 that's become the basic of rap, techno, and house music) as the basis for another improvisation called "Richmond Square". While it was recognizable, it sounded completely different (and far more listenable) with the source of the beat coming from the piano rather than bass and drums.

He opened the second set with "Resolute Bay" parts 1 and 2, soundscapes which tried to capture the flatness and emptiness of the Arctic. Inspired by Glenn Gould's program "The Idea of North", they featured a considerable dynamic range and echoing chords. What I found missing from them, though, was what I associate with cold and bleakness: the high-pitched whine of the wind. Braid's music was more notable for its complex bass lines: the treble was much less audible and didn't feel to me as reminiscent of the cold bleak blizzards of the far North.

But what really caught the attention of the audience was his Chinese-inspired music: "Bai Tian's Day", inspired by a young Chinese musician whom Braid has distance-mentored for the last six years, and "Spring Garden Night", based on a Chinese folk song. For the latter piece, Braid prepared the piano by sticking long pieces of bamboo inside, an "acupuncture" effect which reduced the effect of the sustain on the middle pedal. The resulting piece was very delicate and flower-like, obviously Chinese in sound but with a jazz sensibility.

He ended the main part of the evening with "Reverence", a decade-old piece brought back from his earlier Sextet writing, but reinvented for solo piano for Verge. This was the nearest he got to straight jazz, a rollicking piece with overtones of Oscar Peterson, and a happy way of closing off.

Braid's music repaid careful listening, especially since he played an almost-completely acoustic set, only briefly using the microphone to display the effects of the prepared piano. Almost all the audience members responded to Braid and to Paradiso owner Alex Demianenko's requests to listen and not talk. With the exception of a few conversations on the far side in the second set, the music dominated. However, the rattle of cutlery in the kitchen was disruptive in some of the quieter numbers, as were some overly-enthusiastic interruptions by the servers,

He also made a point of explaining the background and inspiration of each number – as well as telling anecdotes (some that set the entire room laughing): for example, the time he was almost arrested by police in China when he inserted his bamboo sticks into a large auditorium's expensive piano. It was only the strenuous intervention of the impresario that prevented the officers from pulling Braid off the stage for "damaging" the piano.

Braid was called back for two encores by the appreciative crowd: Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays", followed by the graceful "Wait Till You See Her".  Romantic and full of sweetness but intellectualized into something more than simple ballads, they showed again how Braid could redefine music into his own vision.

    – Alayne McGregor

You can read OttawaJazzScene's interview with Braid here.