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15. Jun. 2016

Common Grounds

In the lead up to the 2016 edition of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Coastal Jazz asked various members of the jazz "family" to share their thoughts about artists who will perform at the festival. Today, Matthew White, Artistic Director of Early Music Vancouver, presenter of the jazz/classical fusion project Common Grounds: Alan Matheson Septet & Pacific Baroque Orchestra, tells us why Jazz and Early Music are the perfect partners.


As somebody who has perhaps spent too much time reading, singing, and memorizing music off of well-worn pages, the idea that with the right training and talent you can also make good music up on the spot has always seemed a bit like magic. Though I heard organists improvising during church services as a child, it never dawned on me that the music I was hearing was being imagined in that moment, using a structured language of improvisation. Outside of the Church, in my pre-university experience, the role of “making it up” in Western Classical music was reserved for cadences (which people ended up memorizing anyway for fear of making mistakes), and the occasional repeat section of a Baroque aria in which a singer would pretend to improvise, but in actuality, would also carefully memorize. In short, the ability to extemporize or compose was not something my teachers put a lot of focus on in the early days and it was a subject about which I had only the vaguest notions.

When I went to McGill University, however, I became aware of a couple of things that changed my perception in terms of the value and role of improvisation in the music I thought I knew. 

Harpsichordist and organist Alexander Weimann

The first was that, for the most part, the students who did the best in “ear training” were the Jazz musicians and the organists/harpsichordists. They seemed to hear music both differently and more completely somehow. It was astonishing to me that they were capable of hearing melody, harmony, and rhythm all at the same time, with the same ease and understanding that I heard spoken language (English and French anyway). In case you were wondering, if Jazz musicians and organists were the best at this, classical singers (of which I was one), were the worst. It was not lost on me then, that the most musically fluent students, who seemed to have the most complete musical education coming into the programme, were generally the musicians who had been taught to improvise right from the start. 

The second was that there was a relatively new community of “early music” specialists who were playing and exploring Western Classical music of the 16th 17th and 18th and even 19th century from a different perspective. These “classical” musicians recognized that the role of improvisation and composition were essential elements in the tool-box of all musicians during these periods and it was worth bringing this set of tools back to the table primarily because it made the performance of this repertoire much more expressive. It was an approach that treated the music on the page less like an immutable object of perfection, and more of a suggested pathway (sometimes more defined than others) that could be re-used and changed at the performers discretion. What was clear to me, once I started listening to this “new” way of approaching this “old” music, was that it sounded more full of life, freedom, individuality, risk taking, and expressiveness – it was more authentic somehow. 

Our two collaborations with Coastal this summer are thus based on the idea that the art and science of structured improvisation are unarguably common to many Jazz forms and Western Classical traditions, and that the divide between the two worlds has become artificially distanced over time. From the early music perspective anyway, the re-connection with the excitement and freedom of improvisation has made a lot of this music make a lot more sense to me both as a performer and as a listener. My basic instinct is that the broader classical tradition has lost touch with something that it can perhaps re-learn in part from the world of Jazz, and that it is worth re-examining these skills and what they offer both performers and audiences. Like Alex Weimann in the clip above, counter-tenor Franco Fagioli is an early musician who improvises freely and comfortably - I find it really satisfying...

Counter-tenor Franco Fagioli


Hope to see you either at Common Grounds or the Goldberg Variations/Variations with Dan Tepfer! 

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