March 16, 2011
It’s a fairly audacious idea for a cello octet to interpret the music of jazz icons such as bassist Charles Mingus, trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist Ornette Coleman, never mind the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but clearly, as seen on the compelling Meeting of the Spirits, cellist Matt Haimovitz loves a challenge. Challenge is something he’s used to, since debuting at the age of 13 as soloist with the Israeli Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. For Haimovitz, one of the biggest challenges he has taken upon himself is to bring the cello to new audiences, and to this end he set off in 2000 on his Bach “Listening-Room” Tour, which brought Bach’s cello suites to club audiences across Canada, the US and the UK. Three years later, Haimovitz embarked on a grueling 50-state “Anthem Tour,” celebrating the music of American composers, including his interpretation of guitarist Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.”
After two dozen albums, Haimovitz, in close collaboration with arranger/composer David Sanford, has turned his attention to the jazz world, putting his octet Uccello through the paces with the additional collaboration of guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Matt Wilson and keyboardist Jan Jarczyck, who bring their improvisational weight to Sanford’s challenging arrangements. With extensive airplay on both classical and college jazz radio stations and a recent Grammy nomination attesting to the crossover appeal of Meeting of the Spirits, Haimovitz continues to break down the traditional barriers which surround both jazz and classical to varying degrees. Whether performing in the world’s greatest concert halls, New York’s legendary punk/hardcore venue CBGB, or Austin’s SXSW festival, Haimovitz’s aim is the same—to invite his audience to enter the music without prejudice.
All About Jazz: What was the genesis of this project, Meeting of the Spirits?
Matt Haimovitz: I’ve been working with [arranger/composer] David Sanford for a couple of years. We met while I was living in western Massachusetts and he currently lives there. My wife, who’s a composer, suggested that I check out his music and when I did I came across a piece for cello and piano, “22 Part 1” and it had two 11-tone rows. It is Shoenbergian with a funk groove, a jazz feeling and I hadn’t heard anything so sincere in bridging those worlds; it’s just very rare. So, I commissioned him for a solo piece and he wrote “7th Avenue Kaddish,” a piece inspired by [saxophonist] John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Then a year later he won the Rome Prize and I heard his big band music. I said: “So you know, I’m not a jazz fan but you’ve got to get me in there somehow [laughs]. So that’s how the concerto for cello and twenty-piece big band happened, Scherzo Grosso. The natural evolution in our collaboration was [when] I asked David if he could turn my cello ensemble into a big band. That’s how this recording came about.
He knew of my friendship with John McLaughlin. For years I’ve been an electric guitar fan, starting with jimi Hendrix and moving on from there. John McLaughlin was one of my heroes and I’ve been lucky to be friendly with him these last couple of years and that’s how the Mahavishnu [Orchestra] got included in that. Using these tunes on Meeting of the Spirits really came out of three or four years of collaborating with David.
AAJ: Was the participation of McLaughlin on “Open Country Joy” penciled in from the beginning or had David Sanford already chosen the Mahavishnu orchestra tracks and you then thought it would be good to get McLaughlin to play on the tracks?
MH: Actually, David sent me a bunch of compositions which he thought would work well and when we came to narrowing it down he said maybe we could use one of “A Meeting of the Spirits” or “Open Country Joy” and I said: “We’ve got to have both of these.” They were both so good I just didn’t want to let one of them go. “Open Country Joy” blew me away when I first got to know it. I felt it was a little bit Beethovenian [laughs] in the sense that it was so unexpected the way it rocks out in the middle and then hearing that kind of country influence. I thought it was a lot of fun. With “Meeting of the Spirits” I couldn’t let that guitar solo go, I had to play that [laughs]. It’s one of the all-time great electric guitar solos. So, we ended up using both tunes, but I gave David carte blanche.
The first arrangement that he made was [pianist, John Lewis’] “Blues in A Minor” with all the pizzicato and plucking, and honestly, when I first saw that I thought, oh god, this project’s not going to work because when I saw that in the middle there’s this four-part fugue and you’re trying to sustain all those voices with two cellos. It’s very hard for us to pluck for so many minutes; we don’t have those calluses developed. It was a whole new thing for us. I thought if the rest of the album is going to be reinventing the instruments to that degree then we’re not going to make it [laughs]. Fortunately, Dominic [Painchaud] also plays bass and he took on the challenge so I thought if he’s going to do it I’ll join him and spend a couple of months trying to figure this thing out. But initially I didn’t know if we were going to be able to do it.
AAJ: You say that you gave David Sanford carte blanche to choose the pieces for inclusion; were you not tempted to be equally involved in selecting the compositions that you were going to have to play?
MH: I wanted it to be an honest reaction for David to make the arrangements. To be honest, his knowledge of jazz and jazz history and its connection with string playing of course made for great adaptations. When we read your review we didn’t actually know that there was a Miles Davis version of “Half Nelson” with cello [laughs], which was a very happy coincidence. Stuff like that David generally knows really well so I relied on him a lot.
In terms of interpreting, when you look at a score of his it’s a little bit like a Bach manuscript in the sense that he doesn’t go overboard in terms of telling the cellos what to do. He allows us to go in there and interpret it and make it work.
AAJ: You struck a chord when you described “Open Country Joy” as being Beethovenian, because [drummer] Greg Bendian—who leads a Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute band—believes that not only should the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s music be considered as standard repertory but that this music of McLaughlin and company could almost be considered as modern classical music; would you go along with that?
MH: I would. In a way that’s what we’ve done with this project. Once we got in to it, it became a classical experience for us. It felt like chamber music. Of course we had a rhythm section and a groove but the way we were listening and the way we were responding to each other was not that far away from playing in a Brahms piano quartet. John’s genius is not just his improvisational skill or his virtuosity; I think there is something classical in his compositional sense. He is a great composer in addition to those other gifts. It felt like a new music project for me which had a classical grounding to it.
AAJ: What is the age range of the members of Uccello?
MH: They’re all my current students from McGill so there are a couple of undergrads through to masters students and one had graduated last year; they’re from 20, 21 years old to 28.
AAJ: Were these young musicians familiar with any of the material and did you listen to the original versions with them beforehand?
MH: When we first started playing this we just threw ourselves over a cliff and began learning the arrangements. I arranged a residency for us about five hours north of Quebec and we spent a week there. Basically, David [Sanford] threw a bunch of arrangements at us and we began learning notes and rhythms. As we got into it we started looking up a lot of performances of the tunes on YouTube and tried to find a variety of performances: Miles Davis, Mahavishnu [Orchestra], Ornette Coleman—though our version of “W.R.U.” is pretty far removed from Ornette’s version as it’s more of a [saxophonist] John Zorn-inspired arrangement. We also listened to the albums to try and get it in our ear that way and then we started to make decisions. On some songs we wanted to be as faithful as we could to the original but we were playing cellos and on others we thought maybe the tune would sound better if we went in another direction tempo-wise.
With “Open Country Joy,” for example, it’s slightly slower than the original and we put a little more of that country, bluegrass feel in the third part. But there were certain limitations; we simply couldn’t play fast enough at the beginning. Initially, David [Sanford] wanted it unbelievably fast and we did it about as fast as we could on this instrument [laughs]. So, at first we started without any references to the music, then we were voracious about hearing as much of that music as we possibly could and get to know the style, and then it came to a point where we were on tour where we stopped listening to the originals as we thought, okay, these are our tunes now and we’re going to make them our own, and at that point we had to let go.
AAJ: At what point did you decide to bring in a drummer in Matt Wilson and keyboard player Jan Jarszyck?
MH: I thought of a film analogy at the beginning; we are the cartoon and I wanted some real characters, some real human beings to enter this cartoon world. We’re in this other world and I wanted some real folk from the jazz world to jam with us and add some improvisation and bring some authenticity to this whole thing [laughs].
John [McLaughlin] was the first one I approached because we were doing his tunes. We spent a lot of time deconstructing the cello; we have this old, beat-up cello which we hit and beat up and treat like a drum. It’s really fun to see live, particularly on “W.R.U. because we have these two cellists hitting the shit out of this poor cello. On the CD, I thought that the power of that tune really comes from the rhythm and I wanted that real tension that comes from drums. Matt [Wilson] is adventurous and agreed to do it, so we recorded it in Ornette Coleman’s former studio in New York City; we got Ornette Coleman’s vibe in there which was cool. I gave him this old beat-up cello and said, just go ahead and do whatever you want; it’s not worth fifty bucks.
It was fascinating to watch him because whereas we took silverware and hit the cello all over the place to get different sounds, he was actually more interested in the pitch and started doing different things to it. Having that rock ‘n’ roll backing was important for the feel, especially in those two tunes, “Meeting of the Spirits” and “W.R.U.” It transformed the whole experience and it also gave us an insight when we played “Haitian Flight Song” because we had the experience of playing with a real rhythm section which we could try and emulate.
With the keyboard player Jan Jarszyk, his daughter plays the keyboard solo that closes that tune on the CD. It was her father that played the real keyboards so it was a real family connection. Jan grew up with all that ’70s fusion in Poland. He was a big Rhodes player back in the ’70s and he was happy to come in. For me it was just really important to have some improv on this album.
AAJ: You have Gershwin’s “Lisa”—which has a Tom and Jerry, swinging levity— sandwiched between David Stanford’s “Tryptich” which is a fairly heady tune and Mingus’ own pretty heady “Haitian Flight Song;” did you labor much over the order of the tracks?
MH: Absolutely; we agonized over the order. We generally do on a recording. It’s very important in terms of mixing and obviously if you have electric instruments and a drum set it affects what you’re hearing and what leads into or out of it. I didn’t realize this until I heard John’s [McLaughlin] contribution and then I thought we just have to put that first and from there we started trying to figure out how it all works and trying to space the eight-cello arrangements out so they weren’t all together. We could have put “W.R.U. first but I learned something early on when I was touring in alternative venues and opening for a bunch of rock musicians; I would jump right in with heavy hitting, cutting edge contemporary piece and after one of these shows a promoter came up to me and said: “Before you start playing all this Ligetti and Schoenberg could you give them a little love? Play a little Bach or something?”I learned a lot from that, that if you do give the audience a little love at first then you can take them in directions they might not expect [laughs].
I felt we had to start with “Open Country Joy” and hear John [McLaughlin] first. With “Half Nelson” by Miles Davis I love the connection that John [McLaughlin] came out of Miles’ band. The Gil Evans-style arrangement is just perfect for the cello ensemble. Then I thought we should get some drums into it and go a little nuts with “W.R.U.” Then I started to realize that there was a back and forth rhythm to it all and a certain drama. I really like the Shostakovich-like, really dark chords that open and close “Tryptich,” I thought it was a very funny evolution into the light chords of the [George] Gershwin tune “Lisa” from there.
AAJ: It’s that very striking juxtaposition which really sparked the question. Sanford’s composition “Tryptich” is very dramatic, almost menacing piece in some ways; can you talk a little about this piece and how it was to perform?
MH: Absolutely; it’s an unusual piece for David [Stanford] . In the middle section where I’m playing a saxophone solo with a fun groove to it and I can imagine that coming out of David at any time but just before that where it’s kind of minimal you wouldn’t know that it’s a cello ensemble playing; it sounds like a harmonium or something. That kind of minimalism is totally antithetical to David; he’s one of the most maximalist, contrapuntal composers I know.
I think he was just trying to balance the CD. He knew what the other arrangements were. There’s definitely a darkness to the piece which you hear in a lot of David’s music; I don’t want to say anger but a certain attitude and this piece certainly has it. It’s a brilliant piece for the ensemble. It’s the most removed from the jazz pieces but on the other hand it fits right in there. It’s his classical tribute to the idea of the cello big band.
AAJ: It’s an undeniably striking piece for sure. You’re taking this music to the South by South West (SXSW) festival in Texas, aren’t you?
MH: We are. We’re playing in March.
AAJ: Throughout your career you’ve taken classical cello music into venues where it would normally never be heard, particularly; are you trying to do something similar with this by taking Meeting of the Spirits to unusual venues?
MH: Certainly to some of those venues. I guess my dream for this would be to bring it to some fun, outdoor jazz festivals over the summer and take it to a whole new audience, from what we do. It’s been interesting to see the radio reaction which I never would have expected; a lot of jazz college radio is actually playing the music and it’s even charted at number one in Canadian Jazz Radio and it’s charting Top 20 at CMJ in the United States. That’s a complete surprise but a dream come true in some ways because although my strongest passion and my history is in the classical genre I feel more and more we don’t listen any more to just one kind of music or one genre and I feel like broadening the audience for my own music which I consider to be classical and going out there and introducing my music and Uccello’s music to a lot of people for the first time through this project.
It’s a thrill to reach a broader audience. Also we’re bringing the jazz music back to a classical audience where many people will appreciate it for the first time. It hasn’t happened yet; it’s gone much more in the other direction in reaching a jazz audience. We stopped sending the CD to classical radio stations thinking it wasn’t really for their format but after the Grammy nomination they started asking for it. So we sent it out to 300 stations and we are starting to get some exposure there. I’m very excited to think that some classical audiences are hearing Ornette Coleman for the first time.
AAJ: It’ll be interesting to see how the classical music world responds to this project, for sure. In the past with Uccello you’ve performed Jimi Hendrix’s version of the “Star Spangled Banner “and you’ve also done “Kashmir,” by Led Zeppelin; do you ever find yourself on the end of criticism from purists in the classical music world for mixing such seemingly disparate genres?
MH: [laughs] It’s very easy to be criticized in the classical world for anything; tradition is kind of what it’s all about. Unfortunately people tend to look at traditions only in the last 20 or 30 years when if you actually go farther back this idea of arranging things and bringing vernaculars into the compositional process is something that has been going on in classical music world before Bach, and Bach was certainly the premier improviser of his time and that continued with Mozart, Beethoven all the way to Bartok. I think when I started doing this people thought that I had gone a little mad but I think they realize now that I’m really dedicated to it.
I’m not really that interested in doing a Led Zeppelin tribute album. When I made my arrangement of “Kashmir” I was so happy to find the coincidence that they had used the same mode that Bartok had used in his Rhapsody for Cello. I was making this Bartok CD so it fit perfectly in there. I like the idea of allowing my instrument to evolve and live in the time in which we exist; the power of the electric guitar, the variety of various instruments and what they can do. One of the great things about the cello is that it can recreate these sounds. It’s a challenge to see how closely I can sound like that instrument or hit that groove and jam in that way. Today with iPhones and iPods and MP3 players the listening experience is just not the same as it was in the time of the LP age when you could only listen to 20 minutes at a time. You would hear Beethoven’s 9th that way. I just did a program with pianist Christopher Riley and we literally went from Stravinsky to Piazzola to Janacek to Mahavishnu [Orchestra], we did an arrangement of “Dance of Maya,” to solo Bach to a Radiohead song that we arranged.
For me this is ideal and totally natural. We didn’t have to worry about the categories or sections of a record store like the old Tower Records where classical and jazz were in different rooms. We didn’t have to do that anymore. We could do what spoke to us musically and what was meaningful. We could actually use our imaginations and live in the 21st century and celebrate the connection between music regardless of genre.
by Ian Patterson
View article at All About Jazz