This past May/June I got to spend three weeks at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, and I’d like to put down here a little bit about this incredible experience. But how do you begin to describe something that transcends words? I guess you could start with the place – a valley surrounded by snow capped mountains scratching the very ceiling of the earth. The heart of the Canadian Rockies sure feels this way with peaks reaching 10,000 feet above sea level. But of course the place wouldn’t be anything without the people – sixty-four beautiful and talented souls who came together from all over the world with the purpose of growing together; pushing beyond physical and mental limits with only the music in mind. Those are just some of the thoughts that come when recalling the past three weeks of intensive training in Jazz and Creative Music I received at the Banff Centre, and I haven’t even gotten to the faculty yet! Every Monday afternoon, a new group of master musicians came to us, ready to generously impart their wisdom and share their immense skills with us.
I couldn’t possibly share every meaningful experience that I gained from my time at this musical monastery, nestled away in a magical space apart from the real world. But I will recount a few choice highlights that have seriously impacted how I think about and practice music. Week one started off with all 64 participants gathered in one room freely improvising together. What a wake-up call! To my delight, I had the opportunity to continue working in this large ensemble format for the rest of the week in a double octet led by Dave Douglas. Our improvisations quickly evolved into a system of cueing that we employed with several Thelonious Monk tunes and Dave’s piece (The Caldron) from day one. It was a very informative time where I learned a lot about listening and trying to contribute in a meaningful way to this bubbling caldron of sound.
Week two’s faculty continued in this same vein of purely improvised music. All of the masterclasses really stretched my mind into the outer limits of creativity, a space where the science and spirit of music intersect. I felt this most strongly in both of Eyvind Kang’s masterclasses where he spoke of notes bearing witness to one another, a beautiful analogy for the counterpoint every musician deals with and the ever present context that our playing creates, even when its entirely improvised in nature. Eyvind also spoke on the subject of Ornette Coleman’s theory of Harmelodics, of which I had heard but never explored in depth.
Instead of a group of free agents who either had or had not previously collaborated, the faculty in week three was an ensemble with 10 years of collective music making under their belt. The first time I heard the word Kneebody, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. A friend of mine had recommend their music to me in college, but I didn’t listen to a full album until I found out they would be leading a week of my musical exploration at Banff. After a couple times through “You Can Have Your Moment” I was wishing I had heeded my friend’s advice years earlier, wow! What a sound. This band is pushing the envelope of jazz in a really exciting way. They were generous enough to let us in on their band’s secret language, a series of thirty or so cues that they use in performance to basically compose and arrange their compositions on the spot in a very spontaneous and musical way.
If you are a musician trying to decide if three weeks of your summer would be well spent at the Banff Centre, the only word I have left for you is “GO!” Those of you who have been know what I’m talking about. Those dedicated readers who made it this far and don’t play music, you’re the ones us musicians are here to play for. You comprise an intrinsic aspect of the musician’s purpose: the audience. Big or small, audiences are absolutely necessary for music. I gained a greater appreciation for this simple fact at Banff too, and I hope that I take all of these lessons and put them to good use on the stage, playing for a bunch of people, very soon!