The Happiness Project created music inspired by human voices: Julie Penner (violin) , Julia Seager-Scott (harp)  ©Brett Delmage, 2012
The Happiness Project created music inspired by human voices: Julie Penner (violin) , Julia Seager-Scott (harp) ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Charles Spearin: The Happiness Project
Guelph Jazz Festival
River Run Centre (Cooperators Hall)
Sunday, September 9, 2012

View photos of this concert

We sing as we talk.

We may not realize it – we may not even be very good at it – but each of us has an inherent cadence in our speech, which reflects our selves, our times, and our personalities. And some of those cadences can carry beautiful melodies.

That realization allowed composer Charles Spearin to create what was the most delightfully surprising concert at the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival.

In 2009, Spearin released The Happiness Project, which went on to win the 2010 Juno for Best Contemporary Jazz Album against a strong field of contenders. The raw material for the project was interviews that Spearin conducted with his neighbours – old and young and from many different backgrounds – about how they saw happiness.

He then took sections of those interviews, in some cases just snippets, and found their inherent rhythms and musicality. Sometimes he repeated a snippet over and over again; sometimes he used longer extracts to delve more deeply into the theme. And throughout there were instruments: guitar, piano, drums, trumpet, violin, sax, and more that echoed and built on the individual cadences and enhanced them.

It was music – in fact, music with vocals. Just not your typical vocals.

Spearin has continued to occasionally perform the Happiness Project live, including several shows opening for Feist last fall, but it's not a show which has ever apparently come to Ottawa. Which is a pity, because it's moving and fascinating and perfect for a jazz festival (the 2013 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival, for example).

For the Guelph performance, Spearin, on electric guitar, vocals, and pocket trumpet, was joined by a diverse selection of instrumentalists: Michael Barth on trumpet and piano, Karen Ng on tenor sax, Julie Penner on violin and trumpet, Julia Seager-Scott on harp, and Dave Clark on drums – a somewhat different line-up than on the recording.

Plus, of course, his neighbours' voices.

The show started with just Spearin on stage, as he played some of his interview with Mrs. Morris, the elderly Jamaican woman who lived across the street from him. “Love: that's what I finds it takes to make you happy. Happiness is love,” she declared, and then Ng echoed her rhythm of her voice on the saxophone.

Barth added a haunting melody on trumpet, underlaid by violin and saxophone. Julia Seager-Scott took over with repeated riffs on harp, and then was replaced in turn by guitar, and then loops of Mrs. Morris' voice repeating “a good people person”. The musicians continued their interplay, and the music slowly increased in intensity – but also in joy. Barth on piano added an almost-hymn-like texture, Seager-Scott gently played the harp. And then the sound became less pretty, more elemental, and the sound abruptly stopped as a child's voice yelled out: “I want!”

Throughout the next hour, Spearin introduced the audience to other neighbours: Vanessa, born profoundly deaf, who received a cochlear implant at age 30; seven-year-old Vittoria; and Mr. Gowrie, who talked about how his mother died when just over 40 years old, after having born 14 children. Their voices ranged from childish soprano to baritone; their style of speaking from staccato to rich and slow. .

But although each person was vividly delineated, this was primarily a musical, not a theatrical, experience. The people and their stories and their voices were jumping-off points for the music, an inspiration for the melodies and the improvisation. Surprisingly, these “found” words worked in tandem with the music at least as well as many lyrics.

The overall effect was joyful, resonant, complex, and well worth listening to for its musicality and unified vision.

Running at a little under an hour with no encore, this was a condensed concert. But that didn't reduce its impact: it inspired an immediate standing ovation.

It attracted a noticeably younger audience, some obviously attracted by Spearin's and Clark's indie-rock credentials (Spearin was a founding member of the Do Make Say Think ensemble and an original member of the Broken Social Scene collective, while Clark was a long-time member of the Rheostatics). But this was a concert which would appeal to anyone who values fine ensemble and individual musicianship, and an original and uplifting theme.

You can read more about the Happiness Project at

    – Alayne McGregor

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