By Tom Shea

Originally published in Shea’s blog Hundred Mile Microphone, 2012. Used with permission.  [http://hundredmilemicrophone.blogspot.ca/2012/03/david-braid.html]

David Braid is a wonder. A brilliant improviser, a beautiful composer, a master of piano technique, and also a genuinely nice human being.

David Braid in Performance. Promotional photo from davidbraid.com

David Braid in Performance. Promotional photo from davidbraid.com

My memories of David go deep–he went to my school, played in the concert band with me, was sometimes over at the house with friends. But what I really remember is his music. I first twigged to the fact that he was extraordinary one Thursday afternoon in the front foyer of our school. Concert band rehearsal was over. Buses long since gone, we were waiting for our parents to pick us up. David was at a table, lost in a task; he had a couple of pencils and a ruler, and he was hard at work on something.

I sauntered over to see what he was so engrossed in. Turned out he was writing original orchestral music. Full score. With no instrument at hand to test his ideas. I asked him how he was doing it. He just shrugged modestly, said he could hear it all in his head. Said he knew the names of the sounds he was hearing, but didn’t mention that he had perfect pitch. I asked him about the music; he hummed a few bars, and it was beautiful. Then he went back to work like it was all no big deal. I was boggled. Frankly, two decades later, I’m still a little boggled.

David Braid head and shoulders photo

David Braid. Promotional photo from davidbraid.com

After high school we lost touch, but his name kept cropping up in an astonishing variety of contexts: performing world-wide as a virtuoso piano soloist; recording in duos with luminaries Phil Nimmons and Matt Brubeck; fronting the star-studded and award-winning David Braid sextet; scoring for orchestras and films; teaching at the University of Toronto and in China. The humble kid with the pad of staff paper had blossomed into one of the leading lights in contemporary piano.

I had the pleasure of meeting David after his performance at McMaster’s Convocation Hall on Friday, February. 24. After two hours of marvellous, intricate, beautiful original music exploring a vast range of styles and techniques, the meet and greet line by the merch table moved at a snail’s pace. David seemed to know everyone in the audience by first name; even if he didn’t, he had lots of time to talk, lots of time to listen. I waited, a little nervous; I had emailed him to let him know I was coming to do an interview, but what if he didn’t remember me? What if he had become one of those “difficult” artists? I need not have worried. When I made it to the front of the line, he positively beamed. He called his wife over to get a photo with me, as if I was the star of the evening, not him. He didn’t just remember me–he remembered the name of my dog from his visits to my parents’ house in Mount Hope, 20 years earlier. He asked after the health of all my many brothers and sisters. And he readily agreed to a far-ranging and insightful interview touching on jazz in Hamilton, his musical past and future, and the art of improvisation. Enjoy!

Hi, David! Your bio reads as a series of jazz triumphs, but my first performing memory of you is a spirited rendition of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” at a high school talent show.

When did you begin your transition to jazz?

Your question implies that I made a transition from rock to jazz, but that’s not actually true. When I entered high school, music was a way that I could meet people and interact socially, so I did it more as a means to communicate, not out of love for a particular style of music. In fact, I wasn’t particularly interested in rock or pop; however, when some upper grade musicians asked me to play in their band at the high school talent show – I naturally said yes. I don’t think that band played together again after playing Magic Carpet Ride.

I can’t properly answer your question, “When did you begin your transition to jazz?” until I first explain my broader definition of “Jazz.” I wrote about that here: http://www.davidbraid.com/whatisjazz.php

After you’ve read that, I can go on to say that I believe that the intuitive awareness and feeling I followed when I first started to write music was the beginning of my transition into “jazz.” A key figure at the beginning of that process was Mozart… I wrote about that epiphany here: http://www.davidbraid.com/mozart.php

Is Hamilton a jazz-friendly city?

I would define a ‘jazz-friendly city’ as a place that has high quality live jazz music every week that cultivates a dedicated, and substantial jazz audience. I would also say that a jazz friendly city would have reliable jam sessions throughout the week either privately or publicly among keen musicians who are dedicated to play. The last 8 months before I moved to Toronto in 1994, I started to study jazz fervently – that meant, I stayed home and practiced all day, and went out whenever I learned about a significant jazz event, or was invited to a jam session.

Are there jazz educators or performers living in Hamilton that you would like to acknowledge or celebrate?

In terms of the educators, my high school music teacher, Ron Palangio, introduced the basic relationship between chords and scales and he was the first to plant the idea that improvising was “spontaneous composition” – this remains a central idea in the way I play today. Outside of school, I had the opportunity to play in Russ Weil’s Hamilton All-Star Jazz Band (1992-1994); this band gave me opportunities to rehearse new music regularly with some of the best young jazz players in Hamilton, as well as play the occasional concert. Russ was very helpful and encouraging to me because I think he sensed I was serious about trying to learn.

When you were starting out, did you need to look beyond the city to find the teachers and collaborators that could push your development, or was this an environment that nurtured and challenged you?

For better or worse, I have always preferred to play with a problem and find my own solutions – so I wasn’t one who went great lengths to find teachers.

You told the crowd at Convocation Hall that it was great to be home in Hamilton, and spoke of the need to give back to the places that have nurtured you. How important is that sense of home to your music? Does playing for the hometown crowd feel different?

I think I made a reference to the cliché that “it’s good to know where you come from” – so I decided to close my hometown concert with a piece of music dedicated to my roots of my playing in jazz. It seemed appropriate.

The particulars of an environment play an important role in every musical performance. Playing at home feels different because there are deeper historical connections between the environment and myself.

You have achieved success in a wide range of musical settings, from solo piano through duets and sextets, on up to symphony orchestras. Do you think of yourself more as an improviser or a composer? Or are those so closely related endeavors that the distinction is insignificant?

I really think there isn’t much difference between a composer and an improviser in the sense that both endeavours invent music that didn’t exist before.

Do you think of your music as jazz? What does “jazz” mean to you?

To be completely honest, I think of my own music as my own music! What else could it be? But even to say it’s my own music is an exaggeration because my music is built on the same foundations that other composers have used and developed. Besides, I believe that labeling music isn’t constructive – I don’t want to think of my music as anything specific because that might lock my conception into a specific understanding. I prefer my music to grow without being aware of itself. I could jokingly say “I think, therefore I am not!”

It’s hard to believe that Duke Ellington said his music wasn’t jazz! Similarly, Charlie Parker said “(be)bop is no lovechild of jazz.” I think most people today would agree that Ellington and Parker’s music are examples of great jazz. When people started defining jazz by it’s stylistic traits, I think it’s destructive to its growth.

(For a much more thorough treatment of this topic, please read David’s insightful article “What does jazz mean to me?” – http://www.davidbraid.com/whatisjazz.php)

The music you performed tonight, mostly taken from your new solo piano recording Verge, is remarkable for its structural, rhythmic, and harmonic complexity. It it at times gives the impression of being meticulously planned and constructed. Yet you said from the stage that it is largely improvised. Can you elaborate on your approach to improvisation?

First, why should improvised music not sound like composed music? I can tell you that my goal in improvisation is to perfectly blend form and content. In other words, spontaneously create high quality music. To me, high quality music is made up notes that economically and simultaneously serve melody, harmony, rhythm and form.

Is it difficult to maintain a truly improvised approach to the music after having played a piece so many times?

Well – this question relates to a deeper one – is anything “truly improvised?” – of course the answer is no because no music exists in a vacuum but is some kind of restatement of something which happened before. This can be a problem with revolutionary music, which purposely avoids all the past. (Stravinsky has some sharp things to say about this point in Poetics of Music.)

How do you avoid simply repeating previous performances? Is it important to you that the piece go somewhere new each time?

It’s impossible for me to repeat a previous performance because there are so many variables which make each performance completely unique: even before I’ve played a note, I am creating under different parameters — for example, the audience and their energy, the sound in the hall, the piano, my mood, my new experience, new thoughts, new goals, and other things too. I have learned that spontaneous musical ideas that once had some special value have no value when repeated with the intention to re-create that same value. Special moments can only happen once. I feel like great music created spontaneously has the weight and individuality of a real life form – it defies logic that two life forms could be absolutely identical. To me, this is true of great live performances in the classical music tradition too.

Your music defies easy categorization, and you enthusiastically embrace the freedom to “do whatever you like” as a performer and composer. Do you struggle against categorization and expectation?

I am sorry for saying the words “I can do whatever I like” – I really meant to say “an artist who’s sincerely interested in understanding the past should feel the freedom to choose how they present their future music, without compromise.” I think it’s very difficult to make a career without compromising your music – this is precisely why I feel very very very lucky to have a career: because as I am compromising less and less as my career grows and grows – by some extremely fortunate coincidence, I happen to play music that people seem to enjoy – I am not being modest, I am just extremely lucky.

What advice would you give to aspiring jazz musicians?

There is the area of “learning about music”, but then there is also the area of “learning about jazz” and then, “learning about learning.” At the beginning, young musicians (myself included) don’t have a clear idea about music (let alone jazz) so they don’t know what they should be learning. To make the learning process more challenging, they often haven’t learned much about how to learn. I feel a lot of time is wasted learning lesser important things poorly.

With that in mind, I think an aspiring musician should try to understand the fundamental attributes of music, as well as the fundamentals of jazz styles, then work diligently on being aware of the effectiveness of their learning methods aimed to improve their skills in those fundamental areas.

What was the best advice given to you?

The best advice that was given to me was by Phil Nimmons to have “courage of my convictions.”