Summer Issue, 2005
A Huge Talent: Jazz pianist and composer David Braid continues to jump new creative hurdles

By Geoff Chapman, Performance Magazine

I had a ball. Thats pianist David Braid talking about his latest musical milestone, the premiere of his composition for orchestra and jazz piano in early April by the Winnipeg Symphony led by Alexander Mickelthwaite, resident conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The premier was in Winnipeg just four days after Braids band, the David Braid Sextet, captured its first Juno Award for the album Vivid in the traditional jazz category. (For those who still think traditional jazz ensemble is music play by grizzled New Orleans performers, traditional a la Junos means mainstream. And for those who think mainstream is trombonist Vic Dickenson playing Robbins Nest, well, thats out of fashion, too.)

The winning recording, which features a hot band bristling through more than 70 minutes of thrilling, uttering contemporary music, is terrific. After making critics best-of-2004 lists, the discs Juno was the icing on the cake.

The band is composed of leading lights in Canadian jazz circles playing Braid compositions. The leader is the youngest in the band it includes saxophonist Mike Murley, flugelhornist John Macleod, trombonist Gene Smith, bassist Steve Wallace and drummer Terry Clarke but, he says with a chuckle, they say Im the most mature.

The hugely talented Braid, whos 29, is dedicated to his craft so dedicated, in fact, that he hasnt seen a live or televised sporting event for 20 years. Any spare time he has, and theres precious little, is devoted to practicing and composing.

The Winnipeg date was my pilot project. I tried lots of techniques and now I have the tools to prepare for a concert with the Toronto Sinfonietta of all my music next April, says Braid.

It was a real honor to work with musicians of such caliber. It was enriching. I savoured every moment of trying to achieve a blend of classical and jazz forms. It was by biggest nut to crack so far, inventing news ways for both jazz and art forms to co-exist without compromises to either art tradition . I had to make the violins my rhythm section.

He believes the modalities of modern classical music are close to modern jazz, which suggests their convergence can open up a vast cavern of unexplored musical possibilities.

Braid also played his jazz version of George Gershwins celebrated Rhapsody In Blue at the Winnipeg concert and by all accounts it was well received by the audience.

Perhaps his success in jumping a new creative hurdle stems from the fact that he began hi musical studies in his hometown of Hamilton with classical fare he wasnt exposed to jazz until he was 18.

Braid actually started when he was three-and-a-half on piano, but wasnt happy with the lessons. My brother, seven at the time, was taking lessons, and Im told I always acted strangely when music was being played in the house.

I was taught that you have to play exactly what was on the page no emotion, no expression so it was really finger gymnastics. Soon the prospect of a lesson every Tuesday scared the living daylights out of me so the music in me lay dormant until I was 16.

In 1991, Mozart saved me. It was the 200th anniversary of his death. I heard one of his pieces and the light went on. I became obsessed with everything he wrote (and started taping) the Morning Mozart show on CFMX. I just wanted to write like him, so I spent 18 months examining his sonatas. I still have the scores in a folder. Thats where my interest in composition began to develop.

At Hamiltons St. Thomas More High School, it was teacher Ron Palangio, a guitarist and jazz fan, who revealed improvisation and composition in real time to Braid. I felt I could make music straightaway, though Id never considered a musical career until I was 18 or 19.

Braid enrolled in the University of Toronto on a double major to study computers as well as music, classical and jazz. Even then, I wasnt sure about music but I failed all my classical auditions and passed in jazz.

It was fate.

In the first week I met a lot of mature students like (bassist) Andrew Downing, (saxophonist) Quinsin Nachoff, and (drummer) Anthony Michelli. The bar was set so high. It was fantastic. Miraculous.

Braid confesses was compulsive about practice. I practiced 8 hours a day and had no social life for four years.

By the end of his studies during which he was nominated by the Faculty for the Governor Generals Medal he was beginning to have an impact as one of the busiest sidemen in town. In 1999 he represented Canada at the Martial Solal Jazz Piano Competition in Paris and was commissioned by the Global Knowledge Foundation to write a piece honoring Dr. Stephen Hawking.

In 1999, he also formed todays sextet with the aiming of having it play his music. Its illogical, but I had a gig at the Rex before Id got the band together. And having to write all the music, which tended to go in different directions, was hard work.

His colleagues were all established Toronto players, with the exception of trombonist Smith, who had just relocated from the Maritimes. Gene was on Sabbatical from St. Francis Xavier U. Hes ex-Woody Herman, and a friend of my cousin.

The Rex gig was a success. Sybil Walker, programmer for the Top o the Senator jazz club and restaurant, saw them play and booked the sextet. Last April was their fifth appearance at the Senator where the award winning Vivid was recorded.

The band, whose debut album, David Braid: The David Braid Sextet, came out in 2002, has also made frequent tours, been nominated twice for best Canadian jazz ensemble at the National Jazz Awards and has made notable appearances at the IAJE convention, in JazzFM91s concert series and at the 2001 Jazz Expo.

The troupe plays tunes with a swagger and an assurance that comes with a seemingly natural telepathy. Its sophisticated post-bop mainstream music.

I really believe in this group. It keeps me focused and forces me to bite the bullet and write new material, says Braid. We record our third album in April, and I hope it will stir some (major label) interest.

My writing is a vehicle for different ideas and its meant to let the musicians be themselves. I must admit, however, that its easier to play other peoples music than your own. But I do need variety.

Thats why youll still find Braid in all sorts of combos in and around Toronto. Hes co-leader of the Murley-Braid Quartet with bassist Jim Vivian, and drummer Ian Froman, which has taped a CD tha may appear on the Cornerstone label later this year. Other recordings that his growing fan club will be anxious to obtain include a duo with clarinet ace Phil Nimmons, an all-improv concert that took place in a church in Dundas, Ontario. Another is a trio of Braid, bassist George Koller and drummer Lorne Nehring playing the music of late pioneering trumpeter Freddie Stone. This will come out on the Montreal-based Effendi label.

Other groups hes played with and/or recorded with over the past year include ones led by Tara Davidson, Darren Sigesmund, Billy Robinson, Trevor Hogg, Mike Downes, Tyler Summers, Artie Roth, William Sperandei, William Carn and MacLeods Rex Hotel Orchestra.

For the remainder of 2005, Braid has many more projects, including a probable to Japan and Australia, gigs at festivals including one with Murley at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival, as much work as he can handle and more composing.

Nowadays I feel that composition is more natural to me than performing, says Braid. I have strict regimes of practice of practice but I have to feel Im constantly evolving and inventing new ideas, so that I can focus all my energy.

Braid is clearly a force to be reckoned with on todays jazz scene, yet he managers to find time to be happily married at his home in mid-Toronto. He began dating his wife, Christina, well before his jazz career. She understands how I have to make a living.