Montreal Gazette: Jamming with the classical

November 20, 2010

One of the most original and compelling jazz albums in recent memory was created by a classical cellist who often plays in rock clubs. As Matt Haimovitz’s world has stretched from the elegant Carnegie Hall to the punky CBGB club, it’s altogether fitting that his new album is titled Meeting of the Spirits. The title, a classic by guitarist John McLaughlin from his Mahavishnu Orchestra days, is as good a description as any of Haimovitz’s polyvalent approach to music.

The album re-imagines jazz milestones – by Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Billy Strayhorn and Charles Mingus, among others – with a band comprised of other cellists (called Uccello), some of whom he teaches at McGill’s Schulich School of Music. With guest appearances by McLaughlin, poll-winning drummer Matt Wilson and keyboardist Jan Jarczyck, the album combines tight arrangements with inspired improvisation. Lo and behold, instead of being an academic exercise, as these sorts of interdisciplinary projects threaten to be, this music flows and swings.Meeting of the Spirits

Although the Israeli-born Haimovitz was only 13 when he made his concert debut, as soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, he says it wasn’t until he attended Princeton that he became exposed to jazz and rock and the idea of improvisation. It was there that he met a professor, Steve Mackie, an electric guitarist with a rock background, who turned him on to jamming.

“At that point I hadn’t even played a note from the 20th century. It was all Bach to the 19th century. It was a time when I was beginning to question everything, including the inspiration for creativity. How can we compete with some of the great masterpieces of the past, how can we come up with something new and still challenge and develop new forms? I began to take an interest in improvisation, but I had no idea where the inspiration would come from. So I basically spent the whole year jamming with Steve, trying to find this sound world between electric guitar and cello.”

Eventually they developed a piece for cello and electric guitar based on Romanian folk tunes and played it in Paris, where half the hall liked it and half hated it. “It was sort of my Rite of Spring moment. I was so ashamed and Steve said, ‘Are you kidding? This is the best reaction you could possibly get. When you provoke something, that’s great.’ In my world I wasn’t used to that.”

And yet, he adds, Bach was “the greatest improviser of his time. There was Mozart, Beethoven, all the way through to Bartok – the idea of improvisation was part of the tradition of classical music. Then composers stopped trusting performers and started telling them exactly what to do. Jazz and some world music picked up the mantle of improvisation.”

In that first year at university, he discovered Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. “I was voracious and wanted to get into that. I knew I could never be a jazz musician because my DNA was too classical. But I think I have a certain passion and curiosity and desire to go back to the idea that a classical performer can still jam. In fact we have more chops than anyone else, in terms of knowing our instruments and having a wide knowledge of different styles.”

Haimovitz’s epiphany, embracing various eras and styles, turned into a lifelong passion when, after a decade as an exclusive recording artist for Deutsche Grammophon, he formed his own record company, Oxingale, with his wife Luna Pearl Woolf, a composer and producer.

Haimovitz, whose cherubic face and curly hair belies his rapid-fire precise talk, recorded the Bach cello suites but when he wanted to take it on the road, he says, the “classical music establishment” maintained there was no audience for solo cello performance. In this case, necessity was the mother of invention: Haimovitz, who turns 40 next month, decided to take Bach into clubs normally reserved for rock.

“I knew that we had to rebuild a new audience, and I had come to such a personal interpretation of the cello suites that I wanted people to strip away all the prejudices they have of it, from listening to Casals or Rostropovich. I wanted people to experience those pieces anew. To celebrate the release of this recording I thought we should at least go into clubs, where I could play all six pieces over three hours and people could be comfortable with a drink and take this music in.

“It was the first time that I saw my generation in the audience. To me it was a revelation to see classical music aficionados become excited about (getting) out of their routine, and to see rock, jazz (and) folk followers, who would never come to hear me in a symphony hall, give it a chance. The electricity of that first performance got me wondering whether there was a need in classical music to change the context, so it’s less predictable. It really goes back to the roots of chamber music, which is to experience music in smaller spaces where you can get close to the performer and feel the music and be knocked out by how powerful it is. It’s not about easy listening and having a good nap. It’s about being engaged.”

In 2003, he followed up with a 50-state tour celebrating living American composers, featuring his arrangement of Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner. Since then, he’s seen a shift whereby clubs like the Poisson Rouge in New York City attract crowds for the classical music.

On Dec. 3 he will perform with Uccello at the Apple computer store in Manhattan, then two days later offer a solo recital at the Rubin Museum of 300 years of Italian music for solo cello (which will comprise the next Oxingale record release).

Ten years ago, he says, “the classical music club might’ve thought I was nuts, ruining my career,” by playing clubs. “Now the young generation are starting out there and fine-tuning their chops, and it’s not seen as something scary. There are many closet jazzers and rockers in orchestras, so I’ve gotten tremendous support. It’s amazing how fast things have changed.

“Some of my best audiences are people who are passionate about indie-rock or jazz. I just felt comfortable jamming with someone like DJ Olive, who comes from the electronica world, because of his ears, which is exactly what I look for when I play a Beethoven sonata. To me, whatever genre you’re listening to, even if you don’t know anything about it, if you’re listening like that they know when something is working right.”

Matt Haimovitz performs works from Meeting of the Spirits with Uccello on Nov. 23 at Pollack Hall, 555 Sherbrooke St. West. Tickets are $10, available at the box-office, 514-398-4547.

by Juan Rodriguez

View article at Montreal Gazette

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