JG: Canada has a long tradition
of jazz music. Briefly, how did this come about?
JH: Forgive me, but I really have no idea. I imagine someone picked up a
saxophone and the rest is history. There is a book on the subject though - I
think it's called Jazz in Canada by Mark Miller. Perhaps I will
JG: And where do you personally - as an individual musician or as part of a
(loose?) Canadian collective - fit into it?
JH: I would say barely or edgewise or loosely... somehow or not at all. I
don't know. I think I made it into the book somewhere in small print but I'm
not sure about that. I should really read it.
JG: Can you say something about the status and popularity of jazz music
within the music scene in general in Canada? How well does it fit in? I'm
reminded of a story I heard recently about a zoo who's claim to fame was that
it kept a lion and a lamb in the same cage, seemingly in harmony. Someone
asked the zoo-keeper how on Earth they managed to achieve this. He replied:
it's easy, you just need to put a new lamb in every day.
JG: Is the lamb Canadian jazz? -
does it need to be constantly re-invented and renewed to survive? Or is there
genuine harmony in the cage?
JG: O.K., then... could you
describe your usual working practices: formal, improvisation, what?
JH: I'm trying to 'kick things about'. I think that's an Anthony Braxton
expression but I might have gotten it wrong.
JG: Why the ukulele? Here we
have The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain - are you the lone champion of
the instrument in Canada - or indeed, in jazz and improv.?
JH: The ukulele is easy to play,
inexpensive and makes a sweet sound. I am certainly no champion though - it
hurts my back. I wanted to make a record using very restricted means. In
fact, I wanted to make a record using a stick of salami but the producer
wouldn't go for it. I think he was probably right.
JG: Perhaps you could re-record
Zappa's Uncle Meat?
JG: You asked me recently about
a zen saying I'd mentioned. It involved the individual doing one thing at a
time, or not as the case may be. I'll tell you the saying, first:
Seung Sahn would say,
"When you eat, just eat. When read the newspaper, just read the
newspaper. Don't do
anything other than what you are doing."
One day a student saw him
reading the newspaper while he was eating. The student asked if this did not
contradict his teaching. Seung Sahn said, "When you eat and read the newspaper.
Just eat and read the newspaper."
My point was this: you seem to be trying to marry traditional jazz (for want
of a better term) with experimental, improvised jazz, and I don't think this
has worked - or indeed could work for any musicians. I believe that old-style
jazz has said almost everything it's going to, and any such music which has
value only has it because it's doing something that's already been done.
However well it's now played, it still isn't new.
I'm thinking of the album Piano Music by Jean Martin and Evan Shaw.
What I would call straight jazz. It sounds good, it's very well played, but
that's not enough for me. I want progression,
re-invention: I want the new lamb every day!
JH: New lamb everyday. I
understand. Some people smarter than me might say this quest for newness is a
tired one and that there is something about old things revisited and
reinterpreted which is where the gold is. Although I understand your desires
I have a feeling these people are on to something.
JG: If I stick to my guns with
the opinion that old-style jazz is redundant, I would add that I think
there's enormous potential for experiment and improv. without it often
sounding like someone throwing a load of instruments down the stairs or
stripping it back so much there's very little of substance left.
I know you took great
exception to me holding this view as regards my review of your album (with
Jean Martin) Freedman.
After you said so, I played it again several times - gave it my utmost
attention in a variety of listening conditions (loud, quiet, in car,
background, etc.). Ultimately I couldn't change my initial opinion - and I
reiterate: criticism and reviewing is 99% subjective - that there is little
of substance to be heard here.
I think that collection of
pieces is, simply, unfinished.
Again, I'd like to hear your
comments on this!
JH: I think you've made a good
point in saying it's unfinished. There is something in that quality I
like. I have never made a record
so quickly and with so little contemplation. While we were recording it I
felt like we were connected in the way you want to be when making music and,
though there were no big events or
episodes in our performances I thought that there was just enough invention
and variety to string a listener along. I still think that, but in truth I've
only listened to the album several times and could be wrong. It's funny
having this discussion with you because I'm reminded I spend so much time
with the same bunch of people making music that it does seem to become more
and more objective - this works, this doesn't. But as we can see it's quite
subjective once you get outside the neighborhood.
JG: Let's explore further this
subject of influences and motivations. You countered my zen tale with a Biblical
quote: is faith / religion / spirituality something that drives you at all as
a musician? Can you tell me a little about these day-to-day influences and
motivations, musical or otherwise?
JH: I have a son who is a daily
source of spiritual wonderment, inspiration and motivation.
JG: Why play? Is it, for you and
perhaps the other musicians you work and record with, a case of Art for art's
sake (or as Big Audio Dynamite put it: "Just play music!") - or is
there a game plan; a prescribed (or not) purpose?
JH: It seems to be a central
part of maintaining my mental health. I'm not sure why. Feels good to be
engaged with a discipline as a way to experience a sense of purposefulness I
suppose, or a life in service to a thing. Plus, it can be a very enjoyable,
JG: On the Blah Blah 666 album, It's
you wrote a third of the tracks - including the title track - as well as playing on them. Although
these pieces are in some ways quite different from each other, there's
unmistakably a common thread running through each.
I know you've taken exception
to such comments before, but I'm going to say it again: the pieces are very
I talked a little above about some of this flavour coming from constants like
the melodica, which outside of the first few New Order singles is an
instrument pretty much unheard of in Britain. What's the attraction of it to
you - and to Canadian musicians do you think?
I might as well go the whole
hog now and repeat something else I think you've taken umbrage with and that
is the influence - conscious or not - that Frank Zappa's music has had on
French and other European music, not just jazz by any means. Or was Zappa
merely latching onto something already extant in jazz?
JH: The melodica is easy to
play, inexpensive and makes a sweet sound. Frank Zappa was a wonderful
musician. I don't know how to measure these things like influence or how jazz
in Canada came to be. I find
these sorts of questions impossible to answer - beyond my scope or interest
or experience. Forgive me.
JG: Of course! I'm just throwing
ideas at you - seeing what sticks, so to speak. A piece such as Home
(on It's Only Life!)
feels much more complete to me than anything on, say, Freedman.
JH: I see what you mean now.
Probably if you heard My Freedman's tunes played by his band St. Dirt
Elementary School you would think they were complete. I purposefully tried
to abstract them on FREEDMAN because I prefer making music that way. Home
took about five minutes to write - a rather derivative Les Paul knockoff.
JG: No, I'm not equating completeness with a big sound. Cage's 4' 33' is complete, after
all. I think this is one of the stand-out tracks from that album. Did you
write it for this particular band, i.e. with these musicians in mind?
JH: Yes, I wrote it for this
band. I thought we needed a derivative Les Paul knockoff.
JG: In my brief review of
several Barnyard Records releases, I said that the track It's Only Life! is
"annoying". I'm willing to admit now that was a rushed response:
the more I listen to it, the more I see into the piece. And that's the thing
with this album: it does have depth and a maturity that your more minimalist
pieces lack (sorry, I'm harking back to Freedman again).
It's not as successful a piece
of music, to me, as Home Sexuality, or even Blossom - which features some
lovely guitar playing - but I apologise for calling it "annoying"!
As a last word on this album, I have to say that it was an inspired choice to
have your Blah Overture opening the CD and Jean Martin's Sonata Tragica ending it. Both
pieces are, shall we say, similar but different, and bind the collection
together like the first and last page of a novel does.
JH: I don't think there is a
question in there but just as a point of interest It's Only Life is my pride and joy.
I realize how annoying it is. Really! My wife calls it 'tedious'. But I love
it. I only wish it was longer. I could tell you how I wrote it but you
wouldn't believe me.
JG: Go on, try me!
JH: Very well. I don't remember exactly but it was something like this: I
took the first bar of the first solo
transcription in the Charlie Parker Omnibook (by Jamey Aebersold), and then
followed it with the second bar of the second transcription and so on. When I
got to the end of the book I would take the 2nd bar of the first
transcription and so on. I then compressed it all into the range of an
octave, halved the rhythmic values twice, inverted and wrote it backwards.
There was also some repetition and transposition involved but I don't
remember what I did there. It took forever. It occurred to me after that I
could have just written something like that without going to such lengths but
there was something I really enjoyed about doing that. And like I said, I really
love the recording of that piece. Weird eh? I don't know anyone else who
JG: Sometimes it's all in the
process, I guess. I like it though.
Excuse my ignorance here, but
does this band (Blah Blah 666) perform live? How has that worked out both for
you and for your audiences? I imagine it's a much more rewarding experience
than performances of the more experimental material? Although perhaps this is
an unfair question, considering the totally different nature of the music.
JH: Yes we've played a handful
of times live and it is a very good time.
JG: I imagine it's a much more
rewarding experience than performances of the more experimental material?
JH: No, I don't think so
JG: Although perhaps this is an
unfair question, considering the totally different nature of the music.
JG: No I don't think it's unfair
I'm just not sure why you think it would be more rewarding. It's not. In fact
it's rather a pain in the ass to get that group of people in the same room
together and there is a lot of music to read.
JG: Then why do it? Is your
stripped-down, minimalist music (as with Freedman) then just partly an
excuse to avoid the hassle of having to get the band back together in one
JH: Yes, partly. Of course.
JG: I can't believe that for a
JH: Believe it!
JG: What, not having to read
music in order to play?
JH: We read music playing the
Freedman book. He published a book of tunes. It's very readable and handy.
JG: Let's go back to Blah Blah
666 again. Is there no improv. involved with the group - in the studio or
JH: Yes, of course but it has
more to do with improvising a set - what tunes we play and how we segue
between them and how they are deconstructed. It's mostly about putting on a
bit of a show I think whereas typically straight improvising without fixed material is for me a more
internal, generally quieter
JG: I'm probably imagining it (It's
rather than, say, Freedman) as being more rewarding because I'm approaching
this as a listener rather than as a (the) musician - it's always going
to be more rewarding for 99% of your audience, isn't it?
Can you try to say why
rather than the band stuff is more rewarding to you. I'm sorry to keep going on
about this but I'm trying to pin you down - to understand your motivation.
JH: Intimacy. Simplicity.
Clarity. Economy. Illusory!
JH: Who or which %99 of my
audience are you referring to? Authenticity is the thing that I find people
respond to regardless of what it is your pushing through the air. If you mean
something like "generally speaking" I still answer no. NO, NO, NO.
It's either happening or it is isn't right? And it's easier to make it
happen, for me, with the lamb than the lion.
JG: A couple of short questions
to finish off: Is your music mood-led? As musician-performer or listener?
JH: I don't understand the
question. I'm sorry. Not in the mood I guess.
JG: Miles Davis or Evan Parker?
(Personally, I'd probably answer 'Don Cherry' there if I was asked.)
JH: Both are wonderful
musicians. Don Cherry too. Wonderful. Giants.
JG: Finally, what are you
working on now?
JH: Lots: a 30 minute piece for
CONTACT Ensemble, Element Choir and Barnyard Drama; a tour with Ryan Driver
and jean Martin; working at Keys to the Studio (which may interest you John: www.keystothestudio.org); an album with
Organballoon (pipe organ and balloon); a series of improvisation workshops
in Northern Canada and parenting / husbandry.
JG: Keeping busy then!
I meant to ask: how does this
current work fit into the timeline of what you've done and what you'll
position are you at the moment on that line, if it isn't too abstract a
JH: I'm stumped. I'm not sure
time exists. Are you?
JG: I'm pretty sure, yes. In one
form or another.
© John Gimblett 2009