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Jazz Notes: Making music with Vijay Iyer and Esperanza Spalding

Trumpeter and composer Leo Wadada Smith, nominated for a 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, with Workshop musicians. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

Trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith, nominated
for a 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, with Workshop musicians. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

On May 25, a large group of musicians assembled on the stage of the Eric Harvie Theatre, surrounded by music stands and a sizeable array of percussion equipment. At far stage right, the bassist, vocalist, and Grammy Award-winning artist Esperanza Spalding watched as they arranged themselves at the front of the stage with their instruments, then introduced them. She sang a few bars of the first song with them before quietly stepping back into the wings and the 11 musicians carried on with the first piece.

Later, Spalding would be back on stage with two accompanists, pianist Leo Genevese and percussionist Francisco Mela, and later with musicians including flutist Nicole Mitchell, trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith, and pianist Vijay Iyer. Audiences at the following Saturday concert would have seen Iyer onstage with another group of jazz greats, including percussionist Dafnis Prieto, bassist Linda Oh, and vocalist Theo Bleckmann.

These were the first in a series of three mainstage concerts, featuring everyone involved in the 2013 Banff International Jazz and Creative Workshop, in its first year under the directorship of Vijay Iyer, after ten years led by trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas. The concerts, a mix of emerging and established musicians, participants and faculty, bright, Cuban-inflected beats and outthere experimental sounds, underscore everything the workshop is trying to achieve. Continue Reading →

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Rajna Swaminathan on mastering the mrudangam

Rajna Swaminathan onstage during the 2013 Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Photo: Don Lee.

Rajna Swaminathan took her first lessons on the mrudangam – a cylindrical South Indian double-ended drum – from her father. She would sit in his lap for hours while he played. Later, she and her dad both became students of the world-renowned mrudangam master, Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. Swaminathan father, at her mother’s suggestion, invited Sivaraman to America to stay with his family and become their teacher. To everyone’s surprise, he accepted. By studying with Sivaraman in both the U.S. and India, Rajna has become an accomplished artist and, at 22, one of the few female mrudangam players in the world.

Swaminathan also plays jazz and was invited to be faculty for the 2013 Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music by the program’s new director, Vijay Iyer. She didn’t seem too fazed by the fact that she is younger than several of the students in the program.

I went to one of Rajna’s lectures, listened to her play and interviewed her with The Globe and Mail‘s Ian Brown. She spoke easily about deep musical tradition, the complex arithmetic of her particular music, and her sense of the theory, history and spiritual basis for South Indian music. Then her fingers, hands and wrists flew as she beat out increasingly complex and melodic rhythms, and the music gained fluidity but never lost its distinctness.

Perhaps that is one way to think about Rajna’s musical project: fluid, ever-changing and deeply rooted at the same time.

Here, Swaminathan takes us through three layers of a short piece of music:

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To hear more of Swaminathan’s music and her conversation with Ian Brown, listen to The Banff Centre’s Podcast through our Soundcloud page. This episode is coming soon.

Produced by Jennifer Kingsley

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Esperanza Spalding: “There’s a method to the madness as a musician”

The Grammy-winning vocalist and bass player Esperanza Spalding was here in 2002 just before she transferred from Portland State to Berklee College of Music. She was a participant in the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, a session she describes as “a really wonderful balance of concise and results-oriented critique from all these masters who were so genuinely interested in hearing us and working with us.”

Esperanza Spalding (centre) with musicians in this year's Jazz workshop. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

Esperanza Spalding (centre) with musicians in this year’s Jazz workshop. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

I was aware that after finishing her degree at Berklee, Spalding was immediately invited to return as faculty there, so I knew she had lots of experience as both a student and a teacher. When she returned here to Banff in the first week of this year’s Jazz program (the first under new director Vijay Iyer), I spoke with her about teaching, learning, composing, and performing. More of this interview will be in our upcoming issue of Inspired magazine, but this is what she had to say about the confidence gained from good teachers:

There’s some blind faith that there’s a method to the madness as a musician, especially when you subject yourself to the feedback and critique of really advanced musicians. You’re exposing yourself to that because one day you’re going to be at a more advanced level, but you can’t prove it. So through a series of encounters with really inspiring teachers, and clear teachers who, in a loving way, helped me to see the crap I was doing that was in my way, out of insecurity or cutting corners or trying to sound like I could do more than I had actually studied. Those teachers could show you the door out of a pattern, or into a whole new territory of ability. I remember those experiences that would make me want to go home and work on it, above everything else I wanted to do. Someone gives you the lift to keep going.

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A word with Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith

Jazz trumpeter Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith (right) with Banff Centre jazz workshop director Vijay Iyer, in the Bentley Chamber Studio.

Jazz trumpeter Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith (right) with Banff Centre jazz workshop director Vijay Iyer, in the Bentley Chamber Studio. Photo: Don Lee.

When he put himself in the shoes of younger musicians, Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith guessed the most exciting part of this year’s jazz workshop would be the “discovery.”

Smith remembers a minor but significant moment of discovery in his musical education. At about 14 or 15 , he was rehearsing with a band. The venue was a dance hall, and a couple of men who had stopped in for lunch knew Smith through his stepfather. The group got up to leave just as Smith’s solo came, and he remembered that they stopped to listen before continuing with their day.

He’s had many years to work on that power of captivation. As a composer, performer, improviser, educator, and trumpeter, Smith has had an incredible career spanning decades. Recently, he was here as faculty during the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, giving talks on subjects like his systemic music language, Ankhrasmation.

But the lecture that seemed to pack the Bentley Chamber Music Studio to its seams was when Smith spoke about his magnum opus, Ten Freedom Summers. One of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the composition addresses pivotal moments in American history. Most are inspired by the American Civil Rights movement, though more recent issues have a place as well. It takes three nights to listen to this ambitious collection of music, which Smith has been working on for 35 years.

In this clip, Smith talks about growing up in Mississippi during this explosive time in American history.

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To hear the full piece, check out Podcast Episode 13 on our Soundcloud page.

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Simon Lasky: Mozart to Mahler to Michael

London-based musician Simon Lasky has recently added a new skill to his set. A classically trained pianist, teacher, and composer of contemporary classical and jazz music, he’s now the driving force behind It’s All Music, a lively series of presentations about the close connections between classical and popular music.

Simon Lasky, presenting It's All Music. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

Simon Lasky, presenting It’s All Music. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

He draws a tight line between the musical stylings of Stevie Wonder and Mozart. “Yes, one is a black soul singer from America and one is a dead German guy with a wig on, but I want to show people how they compare.” It’s All Music runs a musical arc from Mozart to Schubert to Gershwin to Jimi Hendrix to Paul Simon and on from there. It started with visits to London schools (mostly high school level) to share a universal appreciation of all musical forms. “I’m not trying to say ‘Your music is inferior,’” he says. “I care about good music, and I don’t like people thinking classical music is only for affluent, middle-class white people.”

This was his fourth visit to Banff as a composer, and he experimented with presenting It’s All Music to a few more diverse audiences, like the Canmore Seniors’ Life Long Learners, a room full of Banff Centre staff, and some indie musicians here for a recording session. He reports that they were all into it. Given his vast knowledge of centuries of music, I asked Lasky about a few tunes that are most meaningful to him.

What was the first piece of music you ever bought with your own money? It was a CD of Jacqueline du Pré playing the Elgar Cello Concerto. She was at the peak of her powers, but she knew she was sick and she didn’t have a lot of time left. I also bought Faith by George Michael. I still have it.  

What’s a song that brings back a particularly significant memory for you? The live version of Shine on You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd. When I was 15 or 16 I was visiting my cousin in Israel, and this song seemed like the sound of what being a grown-up would be like.

Do you have a song on your iPod that’s a guilty pleasure? Anything from The Killers’ Day and Age album. It’s a really good pop record, but I think if my friends saw me listening to it they’d go ‘hmmm’.

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Afiara String Quartet's June 2012 performance in the Rolston Recital Hall is featured on Banff Centre LIVE. Photo: Frank Wang

Afiara String Quartet’s June 2012 performance in the Rolston Recital Hall is featured on Banff Centre LIVE along with a growing list of other high quality recordings produced at the Centre. Photo: Frank Wang

What if you were able to instantly access the art and ideas created at The Banff Centre anytime, anywhere on your computer, phone, or mobile device? That’s the concept fuelling Banff Centre LIVE, a long term project aimed at broadening the reach of the content created at the Centre.

“The idea behind LIVE is a simple one,” says Banff Centre president Jeff Melanson. “We believe that great music deserves to be heard, great art deserves to be seen, and great ideas deserve to be listened to. Through LIVE, the art and ideas born at the Centre every day will be accessible by anyone, anywhere, on any device. It means artists will gain new audiences, and new solutions in leadership will be considered not just in Banff, but around the world.” Continue Reading →

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