John Geggie: Unexpected Conversations
Geggie's two 2009 releases, Geggie Project and Across the Sky, may appear to be very different on the surfaceand they are, one being a more mainstream effort, the other an album that, in many ways could fit within the ECM aesthetic. Many of the songs will be familiar to those who attend his Geggie Concert Series, notably the gorgeous ballad "Across the Sky." As compelling as Geggie's compositions are, he's not a prolific writer. "I don't write a great deal of music," Geggie says, "it takes me a long time to write music; I do a lot of tinkering with things and I find it interesting that something that begins as a tinker turns into something biggerit takes on a life of its own, while being simply a framework to go farther, in the hands of the right groups of people. I'm always fascinated at how someone else interprets my music, as I'm absolutely fascinated in working with other peoples' music.
From left: Vic Juris, John Geggie, John Fraboni
"One of the things I love about the [Geggie Concert series," continues Geggie, "is the fact that I get the chance to get into some of the music, say, of Cuong Vu or George Colligan, or of Donny [McCaslin] or Vic Juris, or any of the number of great people I've had the great opportunity to play with in the series., because you get to know their musicSeamus Blake, Ted Nash...the list goes on...Craig Taborn, Myra [Melford], Marilyn [Crispell]. And it's really interesting to see how they view their music, and how they share the knowledge of their music with someone like me. And then I turn around and do the same thing back when it comes to a tune of mine. I'm always interested and willing to hear how someone else views something that goes on. It's very gratifying to know that Marilyn really enjoys playing 'Across the Sky,' there's something about it that speaks to her.
While the song list on each of Geggie's two recordings are largely different, there is a pair of tunes that can be found on boththe rubato tone poem, "Across the Sky" and the equally lyrical "Or Not." And it's the difference in the performances of those two tunes that speaks the most about Geggie's approach to leading a band. "When it came to choosing tunes for the two records, I had a body of tunes that I wanted to bring to the groups and I was interested to see what happened in different contexts, because there's no question that a trio with Nick [Fraser] and Marilyn will be inherently different than a quartet with Nick and Donny [McCaslin] and Nancy [Walker], But I had complete faith that they would bring their own things to the table, and that the pieces would not suffer or, in any way, be diminished by having more people play them. Even with the same people, you play the same piece over and over again and it will be similar but, at the same time, different. It's a conversation, and there will be commonalties and differences. With both recordings, I feel very grateful that the musicians I'm playing with were always very open to making suggestions and taking suggestions; they're not there just to do what they're told, they have a stake in what's going on. I really appreciate that they made suggestions in terms of arrangements, things like that, understanding that I'm coming to the table with a certain idea of what I'd like to do with a particular tune.
"It's a challenge," Geggie continues, "because to a certain extent I have to let go; this is my tune, and maybe I like to hear it a certain way, but as soon as I trust the people I'm with, and as soon as the lines of respect and communication are strong, then I'm fine with someone saying, 'Let's do this' or "Let's go down that avenue for a second.'"
Another characteristic that links the two recordings is the use of free improvisations. In the case of Across the Sky, they take the form of miniatures, some as brief as fifty seconds and none cracking the three minute mark; with Geggie Project they are still largely brief engagements, but in a couple of cases do extend longer. With its closing track, "Bouclier Canadien" just over the five-minute mark. "Some of the improvised segments took longer to develop," says Geggie, "and so listening back with Ross Murray , who was mixing and engineering, we came to a pretty easy decision that, for example, a piece really seemed to start here as opposed to 49 seconds earlier. I think it's just a vehicle for different kinds of communication. There were some suggestions being madeit wasn't a matter of me directing the whole thing. For both recordings, the musical content wasn't completely controlled or directed by myself; it was a group effort.
"The desire for the little improvisations was to have short, concise moods or impressions," Geggie continues. "At some stageand with Across the Sky in particularit was Nick who arbitrarily suggested, say, a duo between him and Donny; and then I would do a duo with Donny. There would be certain parametersnot to control things per se, but to set context. I keep thinking of them as conversations. If you're in a group of people you trust, you can have a conversation about anything, and anybody can start a thread of a conversation and it can go in any direction; there's no rules, no restrictions on where it can go, and a particular topic can be explored for a long period of time or it be just be a short little thing to be discussed before moving on to something else.
"The last piece on Geggie Project, "Bouclier Canadien" (Canadian Shield), is one of the longer improvs, and there's a crescendo that builds and builds and builds," Geggie concludes. "What I find fascinating is the collective sense of patience and trust to be able to take the time to make the build and not feel as though you have to go too far, too soon. I think it depends on the players and the mood and the energy. There are times when we were working on a piece of music, and we got a version that was good or 'the one,' and people were collectively tired and needed to put their heads somewhere else, like a sorbet between courses in a fine meal."
With the trio setting of Geggie Project, and the participation of Crispell, it's hard not to think of her recordings for ECM, including Storyteller (2004) and the particularly superb Amaryllis (2001). But, despite the overall inward-looking, soft tone of Geggie Project, those looking exclusively for the gentler, more restrained Crispell may be surprised at some of the sharper turns taken by the music. "With an ECM record, there is a producer [Manfred Eicher] who has a strong opinion as to what the sonic aesthetic will be," Geggie explains, "and he's created a really excellent venue that way. I think of a recording as a project; it can be something under a microscope, and a particular thing.
"I remember Peter Erskine talking about his ECM album Time Being (1994)," says Geggie. "The first tune is a free improv, and he explains that it was one of the first things they did that day; it was a beautiful fall morning in Oslo's Rainbow Studio, and the sun was streaming through the window. So it was the particular environment, in that particular moment, that gave way to an interpretation in that particular way. I don't think too much should be read into that, but in my own experience with Marilyn, there are things on that record that are very lyrical and very gentle, and that's what we were doing at that particular moment. But then, some of the other things are completely the other way, like "View from the Bridge," a very deliberate attempt not to be going down that same avenue. I think it's a measure of the comfort amongst the three of us; we're not really switching gears, it's all part of the same process. "
While Geggie Project was recorded in November, 2006, the trio has played since then, most recently at the Guelph Jazz Festival in the fall of 2009. "Just being able to play with Nick and Marilyn this fall was really interesting," Geggie enthuses. "If she's feeling good about the piano, or the sound, she will play in a certain way. Some people may have a certain style or aesthetic associated with them, and in the case of Marilyn, she doesn't often get the chance to play 'swingy dingy' time, or in that contextplaying a solo with a more typically walking bass and drums.
"We can think of so many musicians who have abilities in a variety of areas," Geggie continues, "and yet they can play in so many different ways as a matter of choice, not because they have to. With the three of us on Geggie Project, there was enough trust to be able to play in any fashion; I chose Nick to play drums because I knew that he had a huge ability and awareness of the tradition, that and he can play in that tradition just as well as he can play in the completely out tradition. He took lessons with Gerry Hemingway, for example, so there's a broad spectrum of ability, similar to [Canadian drummer] Jim Doxas. Donny can play in so many different ways, he plays in so many different musical contexts, and like any one of a number of fine musiciansMatt Wilson. Brian Blade and all the projects he does, Myron Walden, Melvin Butler, George Colligan or Craig Taborn...they can all go to so many different places, yet they have a complete awareness of the tradition, plus a really wide open spectrum in terms of what they're doing."