A lot of things have changed in jazz over the past 50 years, not the least being that the music is now taught in schools all over the world. The great solos of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker—works of art made on the fly, often in unforgiving circumstances—have been transcribed for anyone to play, and free online tutorials offer further opportunities for low-budget study.
Yet the way the music was originally handed down, through oral tradition, remains a force. Classical music might be transmitted from professor to undergrad, and rock is often learned from recordings, but jazz still has a place for mentors and apprentices.
That’s the theme behind Mentor and Telemachus, the NOW Society’s upcoming concert. Featuring an expanded, seven-piece version of the society’s house band, Orkestra Futura, it also finds a pair of rising stars paying tribute to their elders—and an elder doing the same for one of her most gifted students.
What’s interesting about all three relationships—Dutch violist Ig Henneman’s tutoring of NOW artistic director Lisa Cay Miller, Miller’s encouragement of her fellow pianist Cat Toren, and Cole Schmidt’s informal lessons with Hornby Island’s Tony Wilson—is that they’ve gradually grown into friendships.
Schmidt, of the Juno Award–winning band Pugs and Crows, has followed the most traditional path, having learned as much through conversations with Wilson as through time spent with guitars in hand.
“I went over to Hornby for a week a couple of years ago and stayed with him,” Schmidt tells the Straight in a telephone conversation. “I had questions about some of his older ensembles, and about some of the music that he’s shown me. So we’d be sitting there, working away on it, and then he’d be like, ‘All right, Cole, it’s time for a little break. Let’s have a beer, and then I’m going to get you to help me chop some firewood.’ ”
For a city boy, he adds, that was a lesson in itself.
Toren had a more formal introduction to Miller; initially, she was her composition student at Capilano University. “We heard a lot of the same things in music, so it was easy to get her help with a composition because we wanted a similar outcome,” Toren, a former Vancouverite, says on the line from her New York City home. “Eventually, I started babysitting her son for extra lessons. Then we became friends and started confiding in each other about more personal things—and now it feels like we’re a team.”
For the upcoming concert, each has written a score for their mentor to play with the band.
“The piece I’m writing is called ‘Always Aways Away’, and that title, for me, sort of suggests this longing to learn, watch, and get it all in there,” Schmidt says. “But when you’re up there playing the music, it’s right there in front of you—you can lift your head and smile at the other musicians and enjoy what’s going on. Tony does that really well—he takes great pride in those moments on the bandstand when things are really happening.”
If Schmidt is celebrating Wilson’s open heart, in “Gaea” Toren seems more concerned with Miller’s fierce imagination. “Lisa has been a big influence on me in just being a woman leader,” she says. “She’s a pretty powerful person, and so while my piece has some mellow parts, it also has some very intense sections which show off Lisa’s ability to just throw it down. She’s so powerful on the piano.”
Also on the bill will be a work Henneman wrote with Miller in mind; the Dutch improviser will also perform, making Mentor and Telemachus a rare chance to see and hear three generations of innovators on the same stage.
The NOW Society presents Mentor and Telemachus at the VCC Auditorium next Friday (October 17). Ig Henneman will also join Cole Schmidt, bassist James Meger, and drummer Dan Gaucher at the Lido on Monday (October 13).