September 28, 2006

Zhen and the Art of Tickling the Ivories

By Robin Lyman, South China Morning Post

The David Braid Sextet, a top acoustic jazz ensemble, are bringing their sounds to Asia Writes Robin Lynam

"The group I'm bring with me - I don't know how to describe in a modest way," says Canadian jazz pianist David Braid, who appears tomorrow night at the Academy for Performing Arts on a tour that also takes in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing.

"In the US they have the Grammy awards and in Canada they equivalent is the Juno awards, and between those five musicians I think the Juno count is up to 31. That says a lot for the level of artistry they bring."

Make that 32. The David Braid Sextet collectively also won a Juno for their 2003 album, Vivid, recorded live at what was Toronto's main jazz club, the Top 'O the Senator.

The club has since closed, but not before the sextet - which comprises Braid at the piano, John Macleod on flugelhorn, Mike Murley on saxophone, Gene Smith on trombone, Steve Wallace on bass and Terry Clarke on drums - recorded a sequel, Zhen: The David Braid Sextet Live, Vol II.

The title of the album reflects an interest in Chinese culture that Braid picked up on a previous visit to China, which included some time in Hong Kong with New Territories resident and composer Peter Scherr.

"There's one piece inspired by an area where I spent some time in 2004," he says. "It's called Sai Kung. I was so knocked out with the town and these great seafood restaurants.

"That whole experience, the first time I went to China, inspired me to learn to read and write Chinese. I've been involved in that, the acted of writing and the beauty of the script.

"The title of the new recording is Zhen because it's the Chinese character for 'true' or 'real'," Braid says. "It's used to describe sincerity and genuine situations, and I thought that was appropriate because of my current interests and also because it's a live recording.

"I'm more interested in something really honest - music recorded the way it sounded on the night, with no editing, to capture that live and raw energy, which I think is like a tribute to all the old great jazz recordings we know and love."

That energy should be in evidence again tomorrow night, and at lunchtime today when Braid and band give a performance at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "It's going to be a real mix, but I'm going to concentrate on the recent recordings," Braid says of the repertoire for the concerts, which should mean some of the seven original compositions on Vivid and a selection from Zhen.

One highlight of the new album is Lydian Sky, inspired by the contrasts in the horizons between the Canadian Prairies and the Rocky Mountains in Alberta. The tune was written to showcase Murley's tenor saxophone playing. Andalusia inspired by the piano music of Spanish composer Enrique Granados, features trombonist Smith and intertwines techniques of classical orchestration and jazz composition.

The sextet have now been together for six years, although all members also lead or play in other ensembles. Braid, at 31, is its youngest member.

"I wasn't bold enough just to phone these people and say, 'Hey, I'm 25 years younger than you, do you want to play in my band?' I had the occasion to work with all of them, and they took me under their wing in the beginning and encouraged me," he says.

Braid returns the favour by composing, in the Duke Ellington tradition, not just for the instrument but for the individual members. "I have about 50 compositions I've written for the members of this group. They all have very strong voices in jazz and strong personalities. I thought it would be fascinating to mix these individuals together and write music for them that would try to emphasise their individual strengths," Braid says.

The formula seems to work. He says he never envisaged the band, which have toured extensively as ambassadors for Canadian jazz - this tour is sponsored by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada - lasting as long as it has.

"I expected it to be a side project to play locally, but it's really caught on. It's one of the best acoustic jazz ensembles in our country, and we're really busy recording and touring."