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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Piano In Residence

Dee Hobsbawn-Smith
Published Thursday October 1, 06:53 pm
David Braid sets up shop in Saskatoon for a spell

 “When I talk about composing,” says composer and Juno Award-winning pianist David Braid, “my goal is to get students to understand there are two different intelligences: the Theoretician, who is left-brained, analyzing, breaking things apart, and the Artist Child, who is spontaneous, who gets excited to play music and who chose to go to music school. These intelligences have different roles in the learning and performing processes. Great musicians seem to be strong in both.”

Braid, known as much for his boundary- and genre-crossing compositions as for his stellar jazz piano technique, was recently named as the U of S’s College of Arts & Sciences Writer in Residence.

Braid will be in Saskatoon for two weeks in early October, and he’ll participate in a variety of public events and university classes, including a concert at the Broadway Theatre on October fourth, and a one-credit micro-class class titled “Emerging Creative Minds: How to Streamline Analytical and Spontaneous Thought.” As much as he hopes to open students’ minds to examining how they learn, he also hopes to inspire them to work hard and persevere.

“When I was less than 20, I observed musicians and thought they had special talent,” says Braid. “When I survey them now, still playing, I realize they weren’t exceptionally talented. But I see why it happens: The dedication to good processes and good learning allows these people to continue to evolve. Bill Evans, the founding father of contemporary jazz piano, is an excellent example. He built his music brick by brick over a long period of time.

“Don’t feel that only special people become really great musicians. Doing something great is available to everyone, as long as you become an excellent problem-solver and know what to work towards.”

Braid was drawn to the complex work of Mozart at age 17, after a disastrous childhood piano education from a teacher whom he characterizes as “not a teacher at all. I learned how to play what’s on the page, like a robot. Emotional expression isn’t something you see on the page, and therefore it doesn’t belong on the page.” Interested in what he calls the architecture of music, the teenaged Braid bought some big score paper and tried to write a symphony.

“I had no theoretical education, was trying based solely on intuition,” he says. “My high school music teacher was a jazz guitarist. He said, ‘Check out jazz: You improvise. That’s like composing spontaneously.’”

Braid likens the piano to the whole orchestra. “It’s a very good tool for imagination and for composing, which is a central part of what I do.” The sound designers and engineers at Steinway Piano concur; a year ago, Braid was invited to visit the New York-based Steinway factory and offer his artistic input into a new project. “Steinway artists are always consulted, and Steinways have always been the best pianos.”

With a successful career that has included several Junos and spanned almost two decades, the 40-year-old Braid has lately taken several creative turns.

“Ten years ago, I was fine with being called a jazz pianist,” he says. “I wanted to work as much as possible, become the best, well-rounded jazz pianist for practical reasons. But five or six years ago, I asked myself a bigger question: Why am I doing this? So I can work? Spend the rest of my life just learning to be more competent? I wanted to find my own voice.”

For a while, Braid played duets with jazz cellist Matt Brubeck, the son of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, and with clarinettist Phil Nimmons. “How that improv occurred wasn’t typical of free jazz,” he says. “It had structured melody, spontaneous composition with melody, rhythm, harmony and form, improvising textural elements onto something that sounded so composed.”

It wasn’t a long leap from duet to solo, he says.

“I stopped playing with anyone. I spent a lot of time studying solo piano, taking things I liked, avoided what I didn’t like. I made significant steps towards my own music.”

Braid was inspired to compose his piece “Chauvet” by Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which examines the animal paintings in the Chauvet cave in southern France. The artwork is believed to be 25,000 years old, but was not discovered until 1994.

“The musical elements of the composition represent various narratives such as the millennia of solitude, the haunting faces of animals long extinct, the palm prints of red dye… mysterious clues of long-forgotten dreams,” Braid writes in an introduction.

Braid describes “Resolute Bay”, his composition named after the Nunavut community of the same name, as “highly visual… inspired by Arctic Canada — the music expresses external elements such as isolation, harsh climate and rugged landscape; it also expresses inner sensations of fear, panic, but also moments of tranquility.”

Although collaboration and improvisation have become Braid’s musical signature, he’s selective about his musical partners.

“I began collaborating with mostly European classical string quartets that were open to partly composed, partly improv. (In Europe, young string players are taught improv.) It was eye-opening, thinking about every note and phrase. It helped me to demand that level of detail in my compositions to communicate with these musicians,” he says.

“I want to collaborate with musicians by merit of their creative spirit, who are absolutely dedicated to creating uncompromising music… I choose musicians who don’t compromise their art form and don’t ignore the audience.”

Braid has travelled to China several times in recent years, where among other events, he’s performed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Beijing Sinfonietta, and an astonishing full-piano improvisation of a Chinese folk song with Chinese guzheng-player Chang Jing. (A guzheng is a stringed instrument similar to a horizontal harp.)

Braid has come to Saskatoon regularly over the past decade, playing with the Jazz Society and at the Jazz Festival, and teaching at the University with brass and jazz professor Dean McNeill, among others.

“I come in as an artist to a small community, small enough that it feels like the interpersonal relationships between people are important and connected, but large enough to have a vibrant arts scene,” he says. “The audience listens, is attentive, intelligent. That is highly rewarding.”

The life of a composer and musician can be rewarding if one perseveres, he says.

“I worked so hard, relentlessly, for 25 years. When lucky things started to happen, I was ready because I had done all the work. Now I live the dream, when 99 percent of my income is from playing concerts and writing music. The reality is what an irrational amount of time it takes to develop as an artist. The amount of energy in kilojoules and the probability and competitiveness and financial return for the time put in seem irrational on a practical scale. We still do it.”




Oct. 2

Music Department's Fine Arts Research Lecture Series (FARLS) lecture

Quance Theatre

12:30 p.m.

Free and open to the public


Oct. 2

College of Arts and Science Donor Recognition Private Concert

Quance Theatre

4:00 p.m.

Open to Dept. of Music students, faculty, and sessionals


Oct. 4

Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra

Broadway Theatre

7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $35 regular; $15 students; $30 SJS members and SJO subscribers


Oct. 5 & 7

U of S Jazz Ensemble Open Rehearsal

5:00-6: p.m.

Oct 5, Quance Theatre

Oct. 7, Education Room 1036

Free and open to the public


October 1-13, Tuesdays and Thursdays

INCC 121.1, Emerging Creative Minds: How to Streamline Analytical and

Spontaneous Thought

Education Room 1004


7:00-10:00 p.m.

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