Happy Birthday, Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)


I first became aware of Velazquez on a visit to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona several years ago. Picasso had painted a series based on Velazquez’s iconic “Las Meninas”. It took up an entire room. It was a journey from representation to cubism to abstract and everything in between. And it was a journey back and forth, adding things, taking things away, and in my excitement and astonishment I thought, ‘Picasso is just a jazz musician painting the same things over and over again trying to get to the heart of it.’ All in all, Picasso painted 58 paintings over a period of a few months in 1957 inspired by this magical painting from 1656.

My own suite of music inspired by the painting has taken me to Banff to work on it, to Madrid to see the original painting at the Prado, back to Barcelona, and musically to Spanish Baroque music to de Falla, Granados, Garcia Lorca, flamenco, and traditional folk music. Along the way I’ve become immersed in the life of Velazquez, the Court of Philip IV and the princess in the painting, Margarita Infanta. I’ve read treatises on the painting, philosophies such as one by Foucault on the nature of reality and historical writings about the journey of the painting from the private chamber of Philip IV to the Prado Museum which was basically built around that painting. I learnt about travel, the origins of tourism and how important art was in the court. I’m still learning.

“Las Meninas” is immersive. It physically dominates an entire wall and when you are in the presence of the canvas you enter it, it surrounds you and you are part of the art experience. You are both the observer and the observed. You complete the painting and are swept up in it. It’s 17th century virtual reality.

Here are 2 excerpts from my suite performed in Feb of this year with my jazz quartet at the beautiful St. George the Martyr Church on an incredible Bechstein piano. I am deeply grateful to Canzona Chamber Players for not only making this happen, but for arranging the concert to be filmed.


on schiff on bach

I recently came upon this beautiful talk by András Schiff about J.S. Bach. It’s well worth the 33:33. (was that timing intentional?)

Here are some highlights for me:
“we need ruhe und stille (peace and quiet) to create music”

“there’s no more beautiful musical calligraphy than Bach’s, because you can see these wonderful waves like flowing water. He never writes a straight line, but only waves. And so you can imagine how this music flows along.”


Prelude in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, I

Schiff plays an hour of Bach every morning. no need to practice technique. Everything he needs is in Bach: psychologically and spiritually, musically and emotionally and even purely physically. “To be able to start a day like this cleanses the soul.”

“In polyphonic music each voice is of equal value. It’s like a society in which everyone is equally important.”

“There is a blending of secular and sacred in Bach’s music. In his dancelike and playful secular music (Schiff spends a good deal of time talking about the delightful French Suites) Bach’s faith still shines through. Conversely, the Masses, Passions and Cantatas contain dancelike elements. The sacred and the secular coexist harmoniously.”

For Schiff, Bach was not only the greatest composer, but a great teacher. Starting with the inventions and working up to the preludes and fugues and later works, there is a definite pedagogical progression to his music. I would like to add that there is no better place to go to study composition and counterpoint.

Schiff’s voice is melodic. He’s beautiful to listen to.

Just for fun I have decided to return to practicing Bach daily in order to rediscover (and discover!) this fantastic music. Won’t you join me? I’m starting with the inventions and sinfonias. It’s incredible to return to those so many years after studying them. Particularly with the perspective of a jazz musician.


needles and opium

Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau cohabitate in the creative imagination of Robert Lepage in this brilliant production presented by Canadian Stage. Innovative, breathtaking, cinematic, extraordinary.

Sleight of hand, sleight of foot, sleight of body – the set a character unto itself begging the actors to defy gravity at every turn, keeping the audience in a swirl of intersecting stories:

a Québécois actor post break up in a hotel room in Paris, Jean Cocteau’s avant-garde opium induced ramblings, Miles Davis first trip to Paris; his haunting soundtrack to Ascenseur pour L’echafaud and his own battle with heroin.

then there’s the set: a dynamic open cube pivoting in a finely choreographed dance with the performers – now a busy street, a lonely hotel room, a sound studio, a trip through space…all brought about through stunning projections, light and shadow, trap doors, intricately timed rigging, a chair, a bed, a bathtub, a telephone. could the actor’s desperate phone calls be reminiscent of Cocteau’s la Voix humaine?

and of course there’s Lepage’s amazing sense of time. the actor’s unending desperate sleepless night punctuated by the sounds of a couple having sex next door. will this ever end? the actor on the verge of despair in the sound studio needing to repeat and repeat from the beginning. can’t we just punch in? Cocteau’s monologues, Miles slowly putting his horn together, and later his heroin needle all projected in shadow. Once in a while I had a moment to marvel at the audacious pace and timing of one scene before becoming immersed in the next one.

Lepage’s genius is apparent in every moment of this incredible masterpiece. from the opening credits (opening credits in theatre?) to the closing image of shooting stars, Lepage’s attention to breathtaking visuals, gorgeous music and intricate details remind us that this is the essence of great art: a transcendent voyage of creative discovery.

Bravo to Marc Labreche & Wellesley Robertson III for their fantastic performances.


The play is being shown in Toronto for a limited run. It closes on Dec 1. If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket, grab it over here!

don’t think twice, it’s alright.

the pop songs we grow up with form our language of thought. It’s those lines we go to again and again round and round in the circle game of our inner dialogue.

are you gonna let me go there by myself? how many times has that line repeated and repeated in the agony of unrequited love?

Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Carole King…

it’s too late, baby

in Joni Mitchell’s fantastic interview with Jian Ghomeshi, Joni talks about how she insists that her listeners relate to the words. not to the singer behind the words.

the whole interview is fantastic. here it is.

I wish I had a river I could skate away on. is that great, or what?

great pop poetry becomes the iconic phrases, those go to comfort foods of the heart. powerful words that resonate long before we’re even aware that they’re there. The other night I put Court and Spark on my record player, lay down on the sofa completely overcome by the magnificence of that record. I only got up to change sides. remember that? My original vinyl recording still sounds fantastic! Besides Joni’s brilliant songs, great playing and arrangements, I was struck by how many of those words had become my own language. my own way to explain things to myself.

such power behind the popular song.

riding the storm

yesterday I rode the storm.

there were at least two places I could have pulled into a kfc or tim’s right off the highway, but chose not to…what was I thinking?

on an adrenalin high as though I had injected it directly through my veins, every fibre of my being in sheer terror.

it was fight or flight. why did I choose to fight it out?

isn’t it time I learnt to respect nature?

once in a while we get reminded how powerless we are. no matter what we think, in the end nature holds all the cards.

nature, her beauty, awesome and terrifying will always win out.

When I was a kid, my dad and I raced our Rhodes 19 every Monday night during racing season. He skippered, I worked the jib. And when the wind came up he’d point us as hard as he could, with me pulling in the sail callous upon callous, my short petite body hiking out of the boat hanging on by my feet…and when the wind died down, we’d try to grab every breath of it. he by intelligent skippering, me by sensing where the wind was breathing through the sheet of the sail through my small hand. we had a parade of pennants to show for it.

Until I reached adolescence, I was a speed freak, and I was fearless. My dad threw me in the water under the age of two and after I emerged spitting and giggling, that became my home. I had a special badge at the pool where they had a strict height restriction for the deep end. It wasn’t until I took up racing and had a flip turn contest with my friends, that I actually experienced anything frightening in water. That day changed me. It may have been after 7 or 8 somersaults that I realized I had no idea where the surface of the water was. When I finally emerged, I was terrified.

Bombing down a hill snow skiing, slaloming in and out of the wakes water skiing, my love of adrenalin and sheer joy of abandon knew no bounds. until one day, and I’m not sure when and how exactly, it suddenly occurred to me to be fearful. wild abandonment turned to abject fear overnight, it seemed.

My first real experience of our powerlessness against nature happened while climbing a mountain in the Sinai desert. We were given very little instruction and no ropes. All that went through my mind was… 3 points of contact…two arms and a leg, two legs and an arm. Climbing up was easy. exhilarating and utterly riveting. I could always hoist myself up a little higher. But coming down was an altogether different story. That was where I began to see myself as just a tiny creature, no larger than an ant against the hugeness of the mountain. of nature. awesome.

I honestly don’t know how I got myself out the predicaments I found myself in that day. How I could reach down with a toe, hanging by a single finger on the side of a mountain with nothing but my own wits to guide me. In the height of the moment all that existed was the mountain and me. It may have been the single most focussed day of my life. Strangely, in the grip of the moment, I felt no fear at all. I was much too busy. fear wasn’t an option. In fact, what I thought was…I understand why people climb mountains. It was a feeling of euphoric joy, that feeling of oneness with nature. no separation between me and that mountain, and that as long as I stayed connected to it, I was going to be okay.

It was only after I finally returned to the ground that fear took over and I realized what a truly dangerous situation I had put myself into.

So remind me, next time you see me riding out a storm, that flight is in fact the intelligent option.

I should save abandonment for playing jazz.

morning pages

I recently returned to writing morning pages.

Morning pages are generally three pages of writing. just writing. allowing the pen and thoughts to flow where they will.

Morning pages are an idea of Julia Cameron‘s, which she talks about in The Artist’s Way. It’s a great book.

…and it’s been a few years since I deliberately wrote them.

My return to the pages was initially inspired by a recent trip to Boston to attend a friend’s wedding. I had arranged to meet a few friends for dinner and I decided to get to the train stop an hour early to sit and write lyrics. I’d been grappling with these words for a while now, and thought that an hour without my usual home distractions could be a good idea. no cell phone, internet, messes to clean up.

I never got to the lyrics. My pen decided that I needed to write more about what I was trying to say with the text, and I furiously wrote free verse prose barely remembering to sip my coffee. Images and half-baked idea snippets came hurtling down the tracks of thought – thought to hand, hand to pen, pen to paper. Stunning images followed by awful hackneyed phrases. As I wrote I kept thinking: wait. don’t edit. not yet. there’s time for all that later… why don’t I do this anymore?

Over the last few weeks I’ve made some feeble attempts to write, so I finally decided to return to morning pages. On the first day I asked myself: why morning pages? I have volumes of the stuff I never read. But I remembered that once in a while a great idea emerges from the rough– an idea for a poem or a project, perhaps.

So this time I’ve given myself a few guidelines:

write to mine for ideas – and when something emerges, try to shape it immediately.

write for therapy – I hereby give myself permission to throw things out.

…that’s what the pen does. it beckons the rawest form of thought. images great and terrible grappling for my attention in blurts and stops and starts and distracted non sequiturs. make it impossible to write it all down before I blankly stare at the page. and through it all rescue me from my initial intention of what I thought I wanted to write about into the world of what I need to write about.


there is a rhythm to the road. a speed, density and distance that includes other drivers, the shape of the road, width and breadth of the vista and peripheral views. how much can I see?

I’m particularly aware of it on the highway, and I usually forget about it otherwise…

and it doesn’t matter how fast or how slow you’re driving.

If driving isn’t just a function of getting from point A to point B, it’s just so much more fun. especially going up the 400 on a Saturday (when you don’t have an early start)

We’re a bit haphazard here. I remember highways in France. No one sits in the passing lane. It’s for passing. But when the speed limit is 130, it had better be.

So going up the 400 on a Saturday getting perilously close to noon, there is plenty of time to reflect about driving. and here’s the thing:

It’s not about speed. It’s more about space.

simply put: I like to be around other drivers who have the same sense of space and proximity that I do.

We all have our comfort levels of distance until it feels like someone is invading our space. Of course, when we mutually consent to breach that with another person, it’s wonderful…

but not while driving.

So I like to surround myself by other drivers who don’t get too close either to me or to the car ahead of them. I try to move away from drivers who accelerate and brake practically up to the bumper of the car ahead.

It’s just not fun to follow those cars. I prefer to coast and accelerate, braking to slow down and change the kinetic energy, but the goal is to do it smoothly, and to maintain, if possible, my own distance comfort level to the car ahead.

and to minimize or avoid as much as possible complete stops.    stop.

I remember being in a car once with a driver who had one foot on the gas pedal and one on the brake. at least that’s how it felt. you know, that jerky jutting feeling. I felt seasick.

Also, I don’t like to be behind things I can’t see around. I like to see at least a car or two ahead. to see what may be coming up.

At the same time, I’m aware of cars behind me, and will deliberately try to get away from the ones who consistently come too close.

Yesterday, I was followed for a long time by a driver in a jeep who had the same internal distance meter that I have. It was a pleasure. even crawling up the 400.

but for a short while I was followed by a woman wildly gesturing in a subaru getting closer to me that I like. I moved away when I could.

And here’s the thing about cruise control. Yes, it has its conveniences, and yes, I do use it. I love it –

but I do believe that unless it’s a fairly empty road, not having the connection of foot to gas to brake compromises my awareness of the inherent rhythm of the road.

rhythm of thought, motion, proximity, pen to paper. the rhythm of the road.

here’s the thing.

Diana Krall can record whatever she wants to, wherever she wants to and with whomever she wants to.

she could have put out another lush look-of-love kind of record and it would have sold a gazillion copies.

but she didn’t.

for Diana’s return to our ipod, stereos, earbuds, radio and computer waves she chose to work with T Bone Burnett

bringing us a deliciously raw cinematically raunchy recording with some country twang, out of tune piano, heavy drumming, honky-tonk and gorgeous guitar work by Marc Ribot.

a state-of-the-art studio sounding like a brothel basement.


yes. I smirked at the pre-release cover, wondering why of all Ziegfeld Follies stylizations they chose a whorehouse-looking corset-garter-laden image…

but the hair too coiffed, the make-up too perfect, the satin too shiny.

and I was dismissive of a first cursory listen of a track or two over the airwaves. what is this?

But when I sat down and listened from cover to cover I found myself thinking of this as a brilliant sound track to a film.

an aural film. full of precarious images. a butterfly caught in the rain, salty tears, a trail of dreams, crying angels, a lonely avenue, the curtain coming down.

beautifully paced, gutsy, full of surprises, a Disney ride through T Bone Burnett’s 20’s and 30’s complete with, yes, corset and black satin stockings.

and quietly in the centre of the scene, Diana Krall, glad, sad and raggy.


scoring silents

I love silent cinema. It’s a new love. It started with the opening of the Bell Lightbox in September, 2010. Just over two years ago.

A stork landed on my doorstep with a Buster Keaton film swaddled in a padded envelope.

Sherlock Jr. What an incredible entryway into the magical world of silent cinema. (I’ve written about it here)

Buster Keaton taught me how to write scores. Buster taught me about timing, about how to introduce a character. He taught me about how you can describe a character through their theme, about how to comment on the action.

But he also taught me to never reveal what was about to happen.

There is a difference between foreshadowing and giving it away.

The story happens in real time. Things happen to people in real time.

When Buster is about to be accused of stealing, the scene starts with him getting ready to save the day. Buster knows that, and we must know that too.

The music must know that, because it makes the reveal, well, so much more revealing.



The Bell Lightbox opened with a concert series of silent cinema gems with various live music scores, including my klezmer/jazz sextet playing to “Sherlock Jr”.

I attended as many as I could. It was my silent cinema 101 course.

I saw “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with Richard Einhorn’s breathtakingly haunting score

DJ Spooky’s “Re-birth of A Nation”- fascinating!

Andrew Downing’s superb and seamless score for “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (you can find an excerpt here:)

and Gabriel Thibaudeau’s lush and beautiful score for “Metropolis”

This was my classroom.

I have since seen the incredible Bill O’Meara play on a few occasions, each time amazing me more and more by his ingenuity, respect for the tradition and his ability to tie it all together in a gorgeous package. Bill has taught me a lot.

Here are some other things I’ve learned:

A score, even improvised, still has shape and form. It has themes that develop along with the action on the screen. It should be able to stand on its own as a coherent musical work.

When the music is distracting to the film, it’s not working. The music needs to sound inevitable. Like it’s always been there. Even if the score is radical, when it can change the feeling of the film, it must never be a distraction from it.


Over the past few months I had the good fortune to delve into the surreal and fantastic world of Méliès and de Chomon and into an early horror film by Tod Browning – “The Unknown” starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. These were all presented as part of Nuit Blanche at TIFF. There were 19 films in all, (some very short) and for each of these films I came up with some melodic, thematic or textural idea which I developed in each film. I made use of prepared piano, melodica and harmonium, thought about Mozart, Chopin and Bach, free jazz and traditional folk music.

For Charlie Chaplin’s “Circus”, my melodic material was Chaplin’s own score, which became the basis for my own improvisation. I mean, how could I possibly improve on Chaplin? His score is witty, clever. he understands irony and how to translate that into music. genius.

So here I am on my birthday thanking the stork for this incredible gift.

And while I’m at it, I’ve just discovered Ada Lovelace via today’s google doodle. She was born 197 years ago today. Mathematician, computer wiz (!) and daughter of Lord Byron. How lovely to share a birthday with Ada!


December newsletter

my latest news: Fresh Air interview, World AIDS Day Concert, Chalkers Pub, Flying Beaver and New Years Eve at Hy’s.