Music at the Center of the River brings a truly spiritual sense of public celebration to the Chutzpah! Festival

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      Nailing down the origins of Music at the Center of the River requires some piecing things together, key components including a love affair with the city of New Orleans, an unexpectedly spiritual trip along the Mississippi River, and an instant connection between three kindred souls.

      Reached on tour in Nelson, trumpeter David Buchbinder proves a relentlessly engaging storyteller as he recounts a journey that’s teamed him up with standup bassist (and former Bad Liver) Mark Rubin and accordion player Michael Ward-Bergeman. Over the course of the conversation he suggests that Music at the Center of the River is, quite fittingly, a project that’s purposefully fluid, drawing on, and deconstructing, everything from New Orleans brass band and Delta Blues stylings to traditional Jewish and Roma music.

      As for how we got there, let’s start with one of the most magical places on Earth: New Orleans, whose impossibly rich jazz history runs deep through Music at the Center of the River. In 2019, Buchbinder, whose resume includes heavyweight Toronto world-music acts Odessa/Havana and the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, found himself in New Orleans, his first-time visit thanks to a Grammy-nominated project he’d worked on. Looking back: mind instantly blown.

      “I’d heard lots about it, but I didn’t understand the essence of the city—the beauty and the chaos,” he reflects. “It really was a place where jazz was still folk music, in that a certain kind of jazz is really embedded in the African-American community, which is different from a lot of other places. In many ways I felt like ‘This is a place that does what I’ve been trying to do for 30 years in Toronto.’ To create, or sort of promote, a spirit of public celebration—really participatory stuff.”

      On a creative sabbatical for that first visit (“I was just burned out”), Buchbinder ended up inspired to come at music from a whole new perspective. That started with his connecting, and immediately bonding with, Rubin.

      “He said ‘You gotta meet Michael—you guys are going to really dig each other,’” Buchbinder recalls. “So I went over to Michael’s house. I was supposed to drop by for a half an hour, and four hours later I was still blabbing it up—we found all sorts of crazy coincidences and connections. Certainly our approach to music, for all three of us, was something where there was a lot of ease. We understood each other. We’ve all done different things, so we’re very comfortable crossing genres and all that.”

      Hangouts ensued, as did the occasional jam session, and then sporadic early pandemic-era virtual concerts.

      As a dual citizen, Buchbinder was one of the few able to move freely between the States and Canada during the first stages of the pandemic. Born in Kansas City, the trumpeter spent his formative years in St. Louis before moving to Toronto with his family at age 9. Six months into lockdown, after debating whether to visit the U.S. (“My daughter was worried that nobody was wearing masks”), Buchbinder made a decision that would cement his commitment to Music at the Center of the River.

      “In my nomadic state I decided to drive up over Lake Superior in the summer, to do some camping and give myself time to think,” he reflects. “Once I decided to cross and go to New Orleans, I realized ‘Oh man, I’m going to be near the source of the Mississippi. So I drove to the source of the Mississippi, bathed in the river, and then drove all the way down the river, stopping along the way, playing to the river, and playing music all along the way. I went to Iowa, where Bix Beiderbecke is from, St. Louis, where I grew up, went to the Mississippi Delta, and went to Memphis, and eventually ended up in New Orleans.”

      Arriving in the Crescent City, he began to think about his journey.

      “Even though I spent most of my life in Toronto, I was born in Kansas City, and I grew up in St. Louis, so going to New Orleans kind of felt like completion,” he says. “Those are three essential cities to jazz. It felt like a connection took place—the river itself being a highway that connects all these places that contains the soul of jazz. I’d already come with this name Music at the Center of the River, so I said to them [Rubin and Ward-Bergeman] ‘What if we make this thing where we explore the music of the different regions?’”

      And, just as importantly, bring the music of various cultures to the party, whether that be New Orleans brass band or the Jewish music that Rubin and Buchbinder spent years mastering. As the interview winds down, the trumpeter notes a couple of things. One is that, when playing live, Music at the Center of the River has already proved to be a project that's connecting with audiences on a spiritual level. 

      "A part of the reason for that is that, for this show, we've brought text into it as well," Buchbinder says. "It's poetic—not informational—and that really gets people into the story of the river. I did a bunch of research, and obviously had profound experiences on my pilgrimage. I talked to the other guys about their experiences, and we came up with enough text—not a lot—but enough that it's a throughline through the show."

      Just as importantly, the trumpeter notes that, although he’s speaking for Music at the Center of the River, his bandmates deserve endless credit for making the journey as beautiful as it is mysterious.

      “Between us, we cover many overlapping cultures,” Buchbinder says. “So you get the combination of the river thing, our combined musical experience, and our own river of the Jewish tradition. And it all flows together into this thing.”

      Music at the Center of the River plays the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre on Thursday (November 17) as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. For tickets, go here. As part of this year's fest, David Buchbinder is also hosting two workshops. Sink or Swim? Riffing on the Essence of Matzo Ball takes place tonight (November 16). The Inner Voice and the Unknown Space: Tools for Cross-Cultural Creators takes place Friday (November 18) with his Music at the Center of the River bandmates. For full info and registration go here.