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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sao Paulo - The IASJ Meeting (Part 1)


I recently attended the International Association of Schools of Jazz Meeting at the Conservatorio Souza Lima in Sao Paulo. The IASJ is an organisation which is the brainchild of the great saxophonist Dave Liebman who in 1989 contacted a group of people from around the world who were involved in jazz education with a view to forming an organisation that would allow for the free-flowing exchange of ideas, students and teachers between schools that teach jazz. I was one of the people who sat in that room in Germany over 20 years ago, and I’ve seen the organisation grow into what it is today.

The jewel in the crown of the organisation is the Annual Meeting which takes place in a different country each year, and in which schools of the organisation send teachers, students and representatives to meet for a week, exchange ideas, do masterclasses and have the students play together and play a concert together at the end of the week. It’s an amazing week and one that really emphsises the notion of jazz as an international musical language.

These are some of my memories and impressions of this year’s meeting...............




Day One

Arrived with my student Barry Donohue (a very talented young bassist) in the early hours after the long Dublin-London-Sao Paulo flight – it’s winter here , but in Sao Paulo that means a pleasant 17 degrees even at this ungodly hour. Sao Paulo is HUGE – it has more than 20 million people and more than 5 million cars, and is a city with little architectural merit. But its real treasure is its people who are just fantastic – friendly and laid-back in a way that is extraordinary considering what a huge Metropolis they live in and how stressful it must be to live in such a huge place.

I left Barry to go to the student hotel with some other arriving students and went to my own hotel. Lucky enough to get into the room early (7am) and decided to go down and have a quick breakfast. Of course this being the IASJ, of which I’ve been a member for more than 21 years, the ‘quick’ breakfast turns into anything but as I run into so many friends. The internationalised nature of jazz these days becomes really clear from the composition of the assembly at the breakfast table – Mike Rossi of the University of Capetown, Gary Keller from Miami, Micu Narunsky (a very old friend of mine who was a fellow student with me at the Banff jazz workshop way back in 1986!) from Israel, George Kontrafouris from Greece and Martin Mueller from the New School in New York. All are great musicians with the exception of Martin, who is not a musician but has very dedicatedly and successfully lead the New School’s jazz programme for more than 20 years. So a couple of hours are spent catching up and by the time I get to the room I’ve got a very impressive level of exhaustion which can only be partly alleviated by a couple of hours sleep.

The afternoon is spent taking care of some logistics for myself and trying to deal with hotel bureaucracy for Barry at his hotel, where extraordinarily for such a big hotel in such a big city, nobody speaks any English..... Then it’s off to the celebratory opening concert, the legendary Brazilian singer and guitarist Guinga playing with the equally legendary Dave Liebman (who is the Artistic Director of the IASJ and the guy whose idea it all was back in in ’89) and Marcelo Coelho on saxophones, a great saxophonist from Sao Paulo, and the founder member along with me and my brother Conor of IRSA). There’s a 6pm call for the bus to take the delegates to the gig, but the bus gets stuck in the traffic snarl and eventually Mario – the founder and director of our host school - in an an incredibly generous and expensive move, hails a fleet of taxi to take almost a hundred people to the concert.


(Lieb and Guinga)

The gig itself is packed and for me, sitting there a bit jet-lagged, it brings home to me again what a great player Liebman is. All the material is comprised of Guinga’s downbeat yet harmonically rich lyrical songs, and Dave plays them with him with extraordinary sensitivity while sounding completely like himself. He plays piano, soprano and a little wooden flute, and what he plays is just magical. Talking afterwards with some of my musician friends we all agree that Dave has been around for so long and has played so consistently great in all that time, that it’s easy sometimes to almost take him for granted, but on a night like tonight you’re reminded of just how great he really is. Marcelo Coelho plays some beautiful soprano saxophone on a couple of pieces also.

Myself George Kontrafouris and two great Brazilian musician friends of ours – Lupa Santiago and Carlos Ezequiel– finish the evening in a Churascarria one of those temples of grilled meat that are a Brazilian speciality – you sit at the table and they just keep bringing you a multitude of different kinds of perfectly cooked meat until you beg them to stop! It’s a vegetarian’s nightmare and a recipe for meat poisoning, but as a devoted carnivore I have to say I felt it was the perfect way to end the day.

Day 2

Jetlag........ Awake at 5am SP time. Gave up the struggle to sleep after a while and got up and did various killing-time things until the hotel restaurant opened for breakfast. It’s cold today! A brisk 11 degrees – not what one traditionally associates with Brazil.......

This morning is the first day proper of the meeting, and it begins with a few opening remarks from Liebman and Mario – the school director here, and then goes on to the ‘auditions’. These are not really auditions, but are a way for us to get the hear the students play and for the students to hear each other play. So the students play together - it’s like a jam-session format – pick a tune and off you go. As usual, since each school sends their best students, the standard is very high, with a couple of students being outstanding, most of the others being very good and a couple slightly weaker but no major problems.

When it’s over Dave and I sit down together and put the ensembles together. Since the standard of the students is broadly similar this is an exercise in internationalisation – we try and mix the ensembles by country to ensure that the students get a real cosmopolitan experience and have a chance to work together for a week with colleagues from many different countries. Dave’s original idea for this all those years ago was to form ‘a real United Nations of jazz’ - and this is pretty much what it is except without the factionalism, power struggles and incessant bickering! Each ensemble has a pair of teachers working with them – not teaching them as such, but working with then to make sure everything’s working effectively. Once the ensembles get going the teachers melt into the background and leave them to it.

The students go to their ensembles after lunch, and the teachers who are not working with ensembles the representatives go to the ‘ongoing dialogues’ forum – a meeting to discuss various pedagogical issues relating to the teaching of jazz.

After that the teachers get together to put together the ‘Teacher’s Concert’ - a chance for us to play with each other, and to play for the students. Various teachers will put together bands and ask other teachers to play with them. This is always fun, but of course there’s almost no rehearsal time so the material has to be practical and have the possibility of being put together in a short space of time.

After dinner it’s jam session time – I hum and haw about whether to go, and whether to bring my bass. I decide (foolishly) on doing both those things and the bus takes us to the jam session place which of course is jammed (no pun intended), and a) there is no way I’ll be able to play a tune unless I’m willing to fight my way onto the stage – which I’m not – and b) there’s nowhere to safely leave my bass either, so I have the cumbersome object with me for the whole two hours of the session before getting the bus back. I should have listened to my wiser self earlier, who was urging me to at least not take the bass. We live and learn – or in my case, not..................

Day 3


(Antonio Adolfo)

This morning the great Brazilian pianist and educator Antonio Adolfo starts the day with a wonderful lecture on the rhythmic underpinning of Brazilian music – it’s erudite, informative and delivered in a wonderfully soft spoken way, leavened with gentle wit.

Following this we have Masterclass in which the instrumentalists group together by instrument – all the bassists in one room, all the drummers in another etc. Since the IASJ meeting isn’t a typical workshop, and each school sends a teacher, it’s never clear how many teachers of a particular instrument there are going to be until arrival day. Sometimes there are many piano teachers, sometimes only one etc. This year there are about 8 drum teachers, so they have to work carefully together to give the masterclass a decent structure. As for bass, this year it’s just me and the wonderful Herbie Kopf from Lucerne, so it’s a relatively simple matter to organise the masterclass between us.

It helps that the students are a very nice bunch of people too and very receptive – there’s a theory that I’ve heard that says that certain personalities are drawn towards certain instruments, and while I know this is a highly debatable idea, I must say I do find that bassists as a rule are very easy going people and quite generous. And I think these are qualities that you need as a bassist – if you’re a nervous, narcissistic, egotistical bassist, you’re unlikely to get much work! Over the 20+ years I’ve been attending the IASJ meetings there have been occasional conflicts of ego among students, but these rare conflicts have never involved any bassists. Of course we all know a bassist who may not fall into the ‘nice guy’ category, but I think there’s enough evidence there to at least start a damn good argument on the band bus about the personality=instrument theory!

One of the students asks me about playing in odd metres, so I give a little demonstration of some strategies for that and we try a few things out together. The Masterclass continues with discussions of various other topics and eventually a little duet between two of the students – it’s been a nice way to start.

(Teacher's Concert)

Since this concert is one night only there are always a lot of groups. These concerts are also marathons...... Tonight there were 13 groups playing! Each one played for about 10 minutes, so if you add in time between pieces for the groups to set up (very quick actually) and a few announcements – well, you can do the maths yourself, but it was long! But good. This year (naturally) there was a real Brazilian influence on the music and a lot of energy in general, which kept things moving along nicely. I play with three different groups, all fun – the last is one I put together myself consisting of Francois Th├ęberge (tenor), Mats Holtne (guitar), Dimos Dimitriadis (alto), George Kontrafouris(piano) and Carlos Ezequiel (drums). Carlos and George are of course my partners in crime from the tour of the Far East we did last year and it was great to hook up with them again. We play a piece of mine called ’Traditional’ , a time-no-changes piece based on lots of different bebop-type motifs put together in an unusual way. It was a lot of fun and finished the evening off with a rabble-rousing finale!

For part two go here

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