Isaiah Ceccarelli Works the Room
“I know it may sound crazy, but I am interested in making beautiful music — music that sounds good. I’m not saying this just to be different, and it might not be in line with a lot of the reasons that people make music today, but I am actually not very involved with, or worrying so much about, a process — about how I write the music, or any kind of system. I just want the work to be inherently musical and for musicality to be the main concern.”
In the fields of modern composition and free improvisation, it is surprising to hear a musician privilege beauty over process and technique, but it certainly makes sense coming from percussionist and composer — and early-music singer! — Isaiah Ceccarelli, whose beautiful work is born out of a rich, seemingly contradictory set of experiences and influences. He straddles many lines—such as the ones between rigorous training and autodidactism, and those between improvisational open-endedness and clearly articulated structures. He is thoroughly invested in both ancient and modern musical practices. Because of all this, his voice is radically individual and yet firmly anchored in various traditions.
Over the past decade, Ceccarelli has built a reputation as one of Montreal’s most gifted and innovative improvisers — equally comfortable exploring extensions of jazz on a kit and probing the various overtones of a single cymbal. Eclecticism may be increasingly common among younger musicians, yet Ceccarelli’s wide spectrum is cohesive and driven by precise intention, where others might veer into pastiche or aesthetic anonymity. Even when he’s assertively delineating pulse or conjuring a loud burst of convoluted resonances, you’ll find an underlying lyricism and an acute sense of harmony.
Recently, there has been growing interest in Ceccarelli as a composer — and rightly so. He’s discovered his own particular intersection, managing to relay in his compositions the tactile sensitivity of his own playing and to employ musical material economically, all the while producing deceptively bold colours and phrasing. His music offers many entry points — transparent, ostensibly simple textures, loose-knit moirés of microtones, attractive melodic contours, extended peals of pure timbre, even idiom-based gestures, plus frequent use of voice. This permeability in his composed works has attracted a wide variety of opportunities, ranging from large ensembles made up of improvisers to intimate chamber works played by leading contemporary music interpreters.
Born in Chetwynd, B.C., Ceccarelli grew up in San Bernardino, Calif., where his interest in playing music was ignited quite early by hearing a friend’s dad, who played drums in a gospel band. Private study began at age twelve, when he took up lessons with a local orchestral percussionist — a connection that endured until he went off to college in Boston, and one that remains evident today in the dynamic shapes of his playing. His instructor’s pedagogical foundation consisted of snare drum excerpts, timpani, and other orchestral percussion. Ceccarelli excelled, and he joined a larger regional youth symphony as principal timpanist. As his complementary interests in drum kit and jazz music grew, however, the young drummer began studying under jazz stalwart Ed Shaughnessy, known for his tenure on the The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and as a sideman to Charles Mingus, Horace Silver, and Teo Macero. Shaughnessy’s jazz pedigree and no-nonsense angle resonated with the young drummer.
“I’ve never been good with following directions. I don’t take orders well, either,” Ceccarelli chuckles. “I’m a very independent person. But there was something in the tradition of it all that stuck with me — learning from a real jazz drummer who was around back in the day. I did all the stuff that is absolutely indispensable to me now.” Under Shaughnessy’s tutelage he was fed a constant stream of exercises and big-band music to be sight-read — all intended to give him every resource necessary to become a full-time musician. The elder drummer’s refrain to the young musician was that he should absorb completely the fundamentals of playing before doing anything else. “I’m a little bit conservative in this sense,” Ceccarelli notes, with wry acknowledgement of the irony of that statement. “I teach my students this as well. I really believe in that kind of working musician’s approach. Everything I ever studied was about making a living. You learn to do the basics well, and you can do anything you want. Your creativity comes after you can really play your instrument.” While that is by no means a revolutionary concept in music training, both Shaughnessy and Ceccarelli understood it as pragmatism, not dogmatism — more a case of being versatile, competent, and expressive in order to cover all your bases, rather than merely blindly following rules. “Even now, as I get closer to the music I want to do, it’s kind of a no-nonsense approach too.” His mentor’s role was not just relegated to teaching traditional grip and the various shadings of brush-playing — he also imparted a wealth of insight into the gigging musician’s lifestyle, including the importance of business savvy and humour.
After his four years under Shaughnessy, Ceccarelli did not feel the least bit inclined to audition for orchestral posts and, instead, set his sights on Berklee College of Music in Boston, where his interest in more improvisatory and exploratory forms began to take shape, spurred on by peers who had a more introverted, European-jazz sensibility in their playing. He recalls John Hazilla, one of his Berklee teachers, offering another liberating piece of wisdom: “You can work all you want to sound like somebody and you can never sound like them — you’ll always sound like yourself.” After his short time at Berklee, Ceccarelli spent a year gigging steadily and practising before becoming the first North American student at the Paris Conservatoire’s jazz performance program. But he was unable to spend much time there, as he was neither able to work in France nor able to forestall the debt he accrued at Berklee. “I’m a dropout from two places,” he jokes.
His journey led him to Montreal in 2003. Accustomed to the competitive energy of the two aforementioned music institutions, Ceccarelli was initially taken aback by the city’s warmth and nonchalance. After catching avant-garde saxophonist and flautist Jean Derome and percussionist Pierre Tanguay playing on TV, he sought out a lesson from the latter, who politely declined and, instead, extended an invitation to play together at his studio. “I was getting ready to pay this guy $100 for a lesson, but that kind of student or post-student attitude doesn’t fly in Montreal. I showed up in Montreal with business cards and shit. I was not prepared,” he says, with a laugh at his own naivety. After forty-five minutes of playing with Tanguay, they went for an hour-long walk in November (to get used to the cold, of course) and then ate lunch. Ceccarelli credits Tanguay with helping make initial contact within the scene, introducing him to fellow improvisers and even calling him in as a sub for shows. Ceccarelli soon began organizing concerts at the now-defunct Zeke’s Gallery, where he became acquainted with players such as Joane Hétu, Lori Freedman, and Derome. He also used the venue to showcase his own ensembles.
One such ensemble is documented on Lieux-dits (2006, Ambiances Magnétiques), which is his first album under his own name, and marks his first serious foray into composing. The music — composed for Frank Lozano and Derome (both of them on sax and other winds), Clinton Ryder (bass), and Steve Raegele (guitar) — is ostensibly jazz-based, but is meticulously written out, drawing on rhythmic and harmonic concepts from none other than Messiaen, as Ceccarelli points out.
On Bréviaire d’epuisments (2010) he formulates a more cohesive image. Never having been formally trained as a composer, Ceccarelli exhibits in these works a reverent disregard for both the purity of the diverse musical elements at play, and the conventions around the idea of fusion. Refreshingly devoid of conspicuous citations and other such trappings, the thirteen pieces seamlessly and respectfully integrate various aspects of his interest and practice. He interesperses solo pieces and ensemble settings of the poetry of Marie Deschênes, and the spare intertwining vocal melodies and the spacious, hovering instrumental sonorities mark a distinct shift from his previous work. Also notable is the absence of anything resembling jazz drumming. The melodic inflections are indicative of his strong connection (as a singer himself) to the Renaissance vocal repertoire, yet the music’s gentle equanimity and harmonic language is undeniably a product of today. Performed by Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba, both Lori Freedman and Philippe Lauzier on bass clarinets, and singers Emilie Laforest and Josée Lalonde, the majority of the ensemble pieces are decidedly slender and melodic, while the solo pieces are intensely focused on metallic percussion drones whose symphonic complexity betrays their singular sound source.
Ceccarelli’s participation in 2012 in the Quatuor Bozzini’s annual Composers Kitchen — a veritable hotbed of emerging voices in new composition — was his crucial initiation into the new music community. It also was one of his first opportunities to identify himself as a composer, without necessarily being associated only with the improv scene. That year, the workshop was a copresentation in England with the celebrated Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and his work Magnuns was played on both sides of the Atlantic by the quartet. He has since performed with the quartet as a percussionist — when they showcased the work of the Wandelweiser collective in 2013 — and he has also received an ambitious commission for the quartet’s next concert season, which engages musique actuelle supergroup Ensemble SuperMusique in a formation that adds a pair of saxophones and a pair of percussionists to the quartet.
During the time of Bréviaire and the Composers Kitchen, Ceccarelli found himself shifting away from improvisational settings, gravitating instead toward writing and improvising within more deliberate confines — be they through formal structures or in group settings where mutual trust and parallel intentions maximize ensemble potential. “I don’t feel constrained when I play music with a form,” he concedes, noting the great emphasis put on the concept “freedom” within improvisational circles. “My desire to compose has to do with — and I’m not afraid to say this — my desire to control more of the elements that are being played in the music.”
Although his activity as an improviser has become more focused, his practice remains inclusive to numerous improvisation-driven bands, all of which have a very pronounced and distinctive aesthetic sensibility. His trio Subtle Lip Can is primary among these, and tours extensively, ceaselessly cultivating its sound — which is extraordinarily difficult to pin down, yet instantly recognizable. Often exuding a peculiar gruffness, the trio’s brazen exterior belies both mystery and patience, with sound seldom heard outside of more reductionist contexts. Bypassing the more familiar conversational mode of improvisational interplay, textures wriggle, bristle, and undulate over and between each other — yet there’s always a certain poise to the spontaneous alignment of the sounds. No matter how entangled, coarse, or kinetic it gets, clarity prevails, affording ample breathing room to each gesture. Ceccarelli is at his most abstract in this setting, variously reimagining the drum kit as a chorus of deep, forlorn yawns, fleets of corroded trumpets, some sort of industrial menagerie, and many things that are even less tangible. Without any visual cues, it’s often difficult to ascertain who’s producing which sound. Violinist Joshua Zubot unleashes untamed creaks, strident ululations, and sharp scurries across the fingerboard, while Bernard Falaise cajoles his guitar into divulging all manner of secret unearthly utterances. Miraculously, amidst the deceptively tidy cacophony there’s still some well-concealed (either intentionally or not) tie to melody. For the listener, it’s like excavating a hidden tune, only to find yourself enraptured by everything else that makes its way to your ears.
Ceccarelli is also a member of Pierre-Yves Martel’s Quartetski, a band devoted to wayward interpretations, both improvisatory and celebratory, of classics, notably The Rite of Spring, Pictures at an Exhibition, Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, and works by Duke Ellington, Erik Satie, and Tobias Hume. Though playful and a touch irreverent, the group wisely resists lampooning their source material; their process is more about extemporizing upon the untrodden paths within these masterworks, while maintaining the fundamental character of the respective works.
There’s also the Linden Project, Ceccarelli’s duo with Kaitlyn Clark (of the early and new-music chamber ensemble Les Amusement de la Chambre), which again evinces, albeit indirectly, his interest in vocal music. Instead of furnishing pulse to Clark’s soft organetto playing, he draws out long phonated resonances that shadow the delicate wafts of tone. Tilting, a band led by Nicolas Caloia (of Ratchet Orchestra infamy), engages Ceccarelli in a more straightforward jazz capacity, while still affording plenty of improvisation and interpretational leeway.
Ceccarelli’s interest in early vocal music has also flourished in the last few years. “I’m known in these three different circles. There’s a whole section of people who think that I [just] sing in this Gregorian Chant choir and that I’m some sort of mediaeval scholar — they have no idea of anything else that goes on. In these other scenes, nobody knows I’ve sung Sunday masses once a month for months and months.”
His ambitious 2013 work Toute clarté m’est obscure is a deeply personal statement, particularly in the way that it reconciles his tripartite artistic existence. Enlisting what amounts to a chamber orchestra of sixteen improvising musicians, as well as a soprano singer, it was presented in SuperMusique’s season that year, within the suitably ecclesiastical grandeur of Montreal’s Church of St. John the Evangelist. The meditative ninety-minute work unfolds through soft majestic billows of pure tone and microsonic textural motion, swelling and receding to varying degrees of opacity. From these harmonic clouds, various motives surface, including foregrounded vocal melodies, as well as significant amounts of spontaneous input and interaction from the performers. The sung texts are Ceccarelli’s own, drawing on his deep connection to various facets of early-music traditions. Even apart from uniting his interests in modern composition, improv, and early musics, the work is emblematic of Ceccarelli’s sensibility on numerous levels. “This is a very personal journey, but listening to different kinds of recent music, I often find myself listening to it and feeling like I have to appreciate something else in order to appreciate the musical experience. I think part of what I’m interested in now as a composer, musically, is trying to simplify that, so that it becomes less important how it’s made. My great passion, so to speak, is Renaissance harmony and baroque music, like Monteverdi and Couperin. I’ve kind of discovered this music in the last ten years, in the same way that I discovered jazz and other things, where I’ve really felt this is ‘my music’ — and of course, those are musics from the past, but I live now, and we are condemned to make music in the present.”
While his affinity for ancient musics reflects his desire to bypass the staunch conceptualism of many recent musical forms, it goes deeper than simple aesthetic questions, moving into the difficult realm of music’s connection to the spiritual — a topic that he approaches, like many musicians, with a degree of hesitation. He’s not one to actively allow his biographical information to be conflated with his musical expression, so specific questions pertaining to faith are not of concern to him. It’s a more general sentiment about what he says as music’s most comfortable place.
“The role that music has played throughout history, up until a very recent point in time, was as sustenance for some kind of ritual, religious, or mystical experience. Within the last hundred years or so it’s been kind of out on its own — which is fine of course: things change — but music didn’t last that long just being based on how it’s been made. We’re already out of that; we’re back to ‘How does it sound?’ That’s what I’m interested in. Music, though, had a long run in service of something else, and I am not necessarily at ease with that and where to go with it.”
As Ceccarelli grapples with balancing tricky relationships between seemingly polar aspects — calculation and spontaneity, tradition and innovation, the befuddling and the alluring, and even the mundane and mysterious — we as audience members are witnesses to music-making which transparently displays its humanity, and somehow implicates the listener in these very questions of balance.
Fred Frith played in Montréal recently along with some very talented local free improv players. I was fortunate enough to catch the show…
Legendary avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith dropped by Montréal’s Cabaret Juste Pour Rire the other night for a duo show with drummer Danielle Palardy Roger, and an opening set by two incredible percussionists - Michel F Côté and Isaiah Ceccarelli.
Côté and Ceccarelli started things off with nothing but drums. Côté was behind a standard kit extended with lots of toys and two mics rigged up two a pair of Pignose amps. Ceccarelli just had a bass drum lying on a chair along with, again, lots of toys. The pieces were all very brief which was really nice, and despite the fact that drums alone might seem limited, each piece was very different from those that came before – sound loud and frenetic, others quiet, one actually managed to elicit quite a bit of laughter from the audience, which I’m hoping was a good thing. Côté used the mics as drum sticks to great effect - creating all kinds of unusual sounds of tension and release, friction, surprisingly dynamic feedback that almost made one think of the expressiveness of the Theremin, and there were moments of all out, distorted, banging-on-a-drum fun. The feedbacking drums were paired up really well with Ceccarelli’s bowed playing. A great set.
Fred Frith and Danielle Palardy Roger were up second and once they began playing, they did not stop until their set was finished — a really long and well laid-out musical journey with lots of highlights and unexpected twists and turns. Fred pulled out every trick in the prepared guitar book - from the old twanging drum stick between the strings to an array of effects and looping pedals and beyond. But with his mastery of music and his instrument it never felt like he was depending on the gimmicks, more using them to great effect to build up a complex, multilayered soundscape and every-evolving composition. He was well matched up with Danielle Palardy Roger, who also had all of the extended techniques and managed to make great music with them. They both seemed to be following their own paths the whole way not interacting too much like some free improv players do, creating a sort of back and forth conversation type of sound, but their individual paths meshed perfectly well together, so maybe they were both just following the music more than their own instrumental egos. Adding an extra oomph to the coolness of the show was when first Fred Frith let loose a barrage of percussive and wailing tribal vocals, followed a little later on by vocal sounds along similar lines from Danielle Palardy Roger. Took it to another level beyond the often staid confines of stylized free improv into something more about music in a broader and more sophisticated sense.
An awesome concert, and I think it was part of a recording project so it may see the light of day on CD in the not too distant future…
L’OFF Festival de jazz: beaucoup plus qu’une tapisserie de jazz local
À son tour, L’OFF festival de jazz de Montréal a dévoilé sa 9e programmation: la Fanfare Pourpour, le projet de Normand Guilbeault consacré à Louis Riel, les improvisateurs d’Ambiances Magnétiques, le quatuor de saxophones mené par Janis Steprans, Chet Doxas inspiré par Jean-Paul Sartre ou encore le doué jeune bassiste Rémi-Jean Leblanc s’inscrivent dans cette plus que trentaine de concerts.
Du vendredi 13 au samedi 21 juin, donc plus tôt que les années précédentes, ces concerts de l’Off se déclineront quotidiennement dans quatre salles: le pub Saint-Ciboire, le Lion d’Or, le Dièse Onze et La Sala Rossa.
«Ce festival est mené par une équipe de bénévoles musiciens. Chaque année, nous essayons de représenter le plus fidèlement possible la scène montréalaise dans le milieu du jazz et de la musique créative. Nous portons une attention particulière à la présentation de projets originaux, tous d’une grande qualité artistique», explique le contrebassiste Christophe Papadimitriou, président de l’Off.
«Également, poursuit-il, nous avons la grande joie d’accueillir des musiciens étrangers et des musiciens canadiens issus de plusieurs provinces qui viennent collaborer avec les musiciens québécois. Nous aimons beaucoup cette dimension de l’échange.» L’Off, aurons-nous déduit, n’est pas une simple tapisserie de jazz local. On y fait des choix artistiques bien au-delà d’une simple idéologie de représentativité.
Au Lion d’Or, donc, la Fanfare Pourpour y présente son projet réalisé de concert avec l’accordéoniste suédois Lars Hollmer, le «quartetski» du contrebassiste Pierre-Yves Martel (prix François-Marcaurelle l’an dernier) s’y consacre à Érik Satie, le quartette de la trompettiste torontoise Lina Alemano s’amène avec notamment le très singulier saxophoniste Brodie West.
Aussi au menu principal, on retient l’ambitieux sextuor du contrebassiste Miles Perkins, un concert du trio du saxophoniste Chet Doxas avec quatuor à cordes (et inspiré par ses lectures de Jean-Paul Sartre), une soirée Ambiances Magnétiques consacrée à l’improvisation (sous la direction de Jean Derome). On suggère aussi Cantouque du contrebassiste Joel Prenovault qui évoque l’œuvre du violoneux Louis «Pitou» Boudreault, on reprend le concept jazz et poésie (animé par l’écrivain José Acquelin), on emprunte La 5e route bleue (arabo-occidentale) de la compositrice Katia Makdissi-Warren avec notamment le contrebassiste autrichien Peter Herbert, on relance le Projet Riel du contrebassiste Normand Guilbeault, sans compter le quintette du contrebassiste Dave Watts, le septuor de la pianiste Marianne Trudel ou le Quatuor du Nord, ensemble de saxophones de Janis Steprans.
À la Sala Rossa, l’Off se joint aux Suoni per il Popolo pour y coproduire le Sun Ra Arkestra, le groupe Barnyard Drama (mis de l’avant par le batteur Jean Martin et la chanteuse Christine Duncan), le jazz électroacoustique du saxophoniste Philippe Lauzier, le trio du trompettiste Gordon Allen.
Au Dièse Onze, on compte attirer les nuitards avec le Soundclash du saxophoniste Eric Hove, l’ensemble Ka Noo du saxophoniste Jason Sharp, le quartette du contrebassiste Alex Bellegarde, les Jazz Warriors du batteur Adam Miller, le sextuor du batteur Isaiah Ceccarelli, l’ensemble de la chanteuse Sonia Johnson et du contrebassiste Frédéric Alarie, le groupe du jeune bassiste Rémi-Jean Leblanc (prochain Alain Caron?), le quintette du contrebassiste Dave Watts.
Prévue de 17h à 19h, la série du pub Saint-Ciboire privilégie les jeunes loups de la scène locale, sauf exception: le quartette de la saxophoniste Anna Weber, le quintette du saxophoniste (alto) Mario Allard, l’ensemble CLH, le quartette du pianiste Malcolm Sailor, le trio du violoniste Robin Bouliane, le quartette du guitariste Carlos Jimenez, le trio du guitariste Greg Amirault, le trio Turtle Boy.
Depuis son arrivée à Montréal en 2003, le batteur Isaiah Ceccarelli ne semble pas en manque de travail. Bien qu’on s’attendait à rencontrer un musicien pressé entre deux répétitions, on a découvert un jeune homme au verbe posé et d’une bienveillance manifeste. Né en Colombie-Britannique de parents d’origine russe et italienne, ce musicien de talent déclare d’emblée n’avoir aucun lien de parenté avec le batteur français André Ceccarelli. C’est à neuf ans, en 1987, qu’il est piqué par la musique, au moment où sa famille s’installe en Californie. Tenté d’abord par la trompette, il se rend compte que les tambours seront sa voie. Il suivra une formation bien classique (jouant comme timbalier d’orchestre), mais le jazz correspond davantage à ses envies, intérêt qui le mènera à étudier avec Ed Shaughnessy. Après quatre années de cours privés avec son mentor, il aura acquis les bases techniques pour entamer une carrière professionnelle. Pourtant, en 1997, il s’inscrit à la Berklee School of Music, occasion de rêve pour connaître des musiciens de toutes les provenances, dont le guitariste français Antoine Polin, avec qui il enregistre deux albums. Cette rencontre le mènera vers l’Ancien Continent, puis à un autre stage d’études au Conservatoire national de Paris, auprès du grand batteur Daniel Humair et du bassiste Ricardo Del Fra. Il multiplie les expériences, question de ne pas se cantonner dans un style trop défini. De retour en Amérique, à New York cette fois-ci, il enregistre un album en quartette avec le saxo Joshua Rifkin, ex-confrère de Berklee, mais ne s’attend pas à ce que la Grosse Pomme lui accorde une consécration. Peu avant ce passage, Isaiah débarque à Montréal et se sent immédiatement interpellé par la richesse de notre scène locale, qui lui permet d’avoir les coudées franches et de former un groupe pour jouer ses compositions. Côté influences, il nomme volontiers Tony Williams, Paul Motian et Ed Blackwell, mais dans un tout autre genre, il mentionne le percussionniste Lè Quan-Ninh, dont l’art le touche peut-être encore plus. Quant à son jeu, on y entend une invention généreuse qui trahit ses sources d’inspiration américaine et européenne, deux pôles qui se complètent en offrant le meilleur de ces deux mondes. En sideman, il compte plusieurs disques à son actif (dont la parution récente Désir — Effendi Ballades), mais son premier enregistrement en leader devrait paraître l’automne prochain (un quintette avec Jean Derome et Frank Lozano, chez Ambiances Magnétiques). Musicien polyvalent s’il en est, Isaiah Ceccarelli est un beau fleuron pour la scène montréalaise et sa présence se fait sentir sur plusieurs fronts à la fois.