Mozart Could Play Jazz: An Interview with David Braid

Awarded 2009 Jazz Pianist of the Year in Canada, David Braid visited China in 2006 and 2008. Now he's coming back and perform piano recital sessions in various cities. Before his Beijing concert on November 22, the Juno Award winning pianist and composer shares some insights with the Beijinger.

the Beijinger: You studied computers at the University of Toronto, and weren’t even exposed to jazz until the age of 18. Now you’re mostly known as a jazz composer…it seems all very… illogical.
David Braid: I agree that my path to becoming a composer and pianist specializing in jazz seems convoluted; it’s even more so when I tell you that, in addition to studying Computer Science at UT, I took courses in Psychology and Math as well as music. Prior to University, I was also quite involved with athletics, and I think my father had hopes of me becoming a professional athlete! Also, when I was very young, I enjoyed building things with my hands, especially tinkering with electronics – so I think my mother expected me to be an electrical engineer.

I starting taking piano lessons at age 3, so there is no time when I cannot remember being able to play music. However, I did not grow up in an artistically vibrant environment, so there wasn’t much stimulus and interest to pursue the arts. I didn’t get have any serious interest in music until I was 16 when I heard a symphony by Mozart.

I wouldn’t say that becoming a musician was a happy accident either because it seems like I’m still in the process of becoming a musician. I feel at peace with the decision to pursue music, but I wouldn’t describe it as a happy process in the way many people think that happiness is the fundamental feeling as one who “follows his passion”. To me, it’s more of a submission to the responsibility to develop a gift that has identified itself and is impossible to suppress; this makes becoming a musician much less like a career choice and more like a vocation – something that feels like a personal evolution over a long period of time.

tbj: A writer once commented, “If Mozart Played Jazz, He'd be David Braid.” Do you agree with that statement? I heard you actually got into jazz by listening to Mozart?
DB: That statement doesn’t make sense to me out of its original context. This quote is taken from a generous review I received after a concert of my compositions for Jazz Sextet. Based on the review which followed that quote, the music critic elaborated on how my writing carried some similar features to Mozart's music - not that he and I are equals! I have written about 60 pieces for jazz sextet, and I feel that after so many opportunities to compose for that instrumentation, I have found some techniques to arrange musical ideas with a simple, clear expression. I think that particular quality is what the reviewer related to Mozart.
Lastly, Mozart's music played a big part in how I became interested in composition, so to have his named mentioned in a review of my music was very special for me.

tbj: You believe “the modalities of modern classical music are close to modern jazz.” Can you describe your own definitions of “modern classical” and “modern jazz”? Also, what exactly are you referring to with these “modalities”?
DB: This statement originally came from a description of my first orchestral piece which blended symphonic writing and jazz piano improvisation. In that context, I defined Modern Classical music to generally refer to: “Western classical music of the 20th century to the present day,” and Modern Jazz music as: “Jazz music of the last two decades, especially (in this case) jazz music made in Europe for the ECM record label.

Among those bodies of works identified above, there are common elements to both (which I call modalities), which blur the distinction between those two musical genres. Examples of common composition techniques are: non-functional harmony, linear voice movement, atonality, modal or cell-based improvisation, and extended instrumental technique (to name only a few).

tbj: What are the main differences between writing music for others and composing your own material?
DB: There is no difference, although if I’m writing something for myself to play, it’s likely that the composition will continue to refine itself over time.

tbj: Apart from performing and composing, you also teach. What courses do you teach?
DB: Currently, I am teaching a Masters and DMA jazz composition course at the University of Toronto. Also, I have done quite a lot of master classes on improvisation and composition at various Universities of Colleges while on tour.

tbj: Since music is such an abstract subject, what do you think is the most effective way to get your point across to other people?
DB: I agree that music is an abstract subject while it is active (in performance), but it is made from principals that we can isolate, such as: melody, harmony, rhythm and form - Ernst Toch might have been the first to refer to these as "the shaping forces of music" which I think is an entry point into teaching students about the construction of music.

In my own teaching, I focus on developing the students' awareness of those fundamentals, since they inform all music of all time – these are musical truths, unchanging rules, and the timeless tradition of music.

Tuning students’ awareness to this tradition (hopefully) creates discerning listeners so that they might be more sensitive to music’s more abstract qualities which can only be learned intuitively when it's being performed.

In short, I teach them about the architecture in music with the faith that identifying the tradition of music will enhance their exposure to music’s formless, aesthetic qualities.

tbj: Tell about some of your experiences performing in China.
DB: Besides loving to learn about China’s culture, language, and cuisine, the experience most worth elaborating on is how I have really experienced the “transformative” power of music while performing in China. That is, the transformative effects on listeners – not necessarily on a sentimental level, but on a deeper, spiritual level. I know this transformation has happened by the profound feedback and friendships I have made through my performances in China. It is particularly meaningful to hear feedback from an audience that does not have a highly developed sense of jazz appreciation because I believe they experience the music in a more pure, unaffected way than a very knowledgeable (and biased) audience.

tbj: How did Chinese audiences react to your music when you first played here? Can you feel any differences or changes in their reactions over the years?
DB: There are so many variables involved with any given performance – such as the repertoire, the rendering of the repertoire, the audience’s temperament, the quality of the sound...etc… So it's generally difficult to make any conclusions about any audience’s true reaction. Further, it’s hard for me to measure the Chinese audience’s reaction over time because I've never played the same music to the same audience twice. I don’t think I have sufficient information to qualify any point of view.

tbj: You have collaborated with musicians from China and India and taken elements from music of different cultures. Is it something to do with the environment you grew up?
DB: I live in Toronto, which could be one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Many cities have many cultures, but something unique to Canada is that this country encourages new citizens to maintain and celebrate their ethnic culture, instead of letting it become secondary to a pre-formed idea of a “Canadian identity.” This is quite a different attitude compared to the United States, where conforming to a national definition of being "an American" is the expectation for new citizens.

For better or worse (there is some debate), the larger Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are like multi-national centers. Of course there is going to be some conflict, but largely, people get along reasonably well. I really value this harmony and diversity because I feel like it has encouraged me to have an open mind when confronted by something that is unknown.

One of the pieces in my repertoire, Spirit Dance, was inspired by this diversity; it contains fragmented references of contrasting music systems of African, Arabic, Asian, and European music. The compositional idea in Spirit Dance was to take these fragments and harmonize them into one cohesive piece. I saw this composition as a metaphor for the multi-cultural environment which I am a part of in Toronto.

tbj: Finally, can you recommend two of your tracks to our depressed readers – one to make them feel better, and one to make them feel worse.
DB: Hmm… I would want people to react in their own way, rather than be influenced by my suggestion. However, I can suggest one early album of mine Vivid, David Braid Sextet Live where I think the sentiments of the pieces are most direct. Beyond that, people seem to have reactions to some specific pieces of mine, such as “Wash Away”, “Interior Castles” and “Resolute Bay.” I will be performing these pieces for solo piano on my upcoming tour.

David Braid plays at Forbidden City Concert Hall on November 22 (Sunday). RMB 30-380. 7.30pm. Inside Zhongshan Park, Xichang'an Jie, Xicheng District (6559 8285) 西城区西长安街中山公园内

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