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Matt Haimovitz: Rare Birds

By Published: March 16, 2011
AAJ: You say that you gave David Sanford carte blanche to choose the pieces for inclusion; were you not tempted to be equally involved in selecting the compositions that you were going to have to play?

MH: I wanted it to be an honest reaction for David to make the arrangements. To be honest, his knowledge of jazz and jazz history and its connection with string playing of course made for great adaptations. When we read your review we didn't actually know that there was a Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
version of "Half Nelson" with cello [laughs], which was a very happy coincidence. Stuff like that David generally knows really well so I relied on him a lot.

Matt Haimovitz & Uccello, From left: Matt Haimovitz, Leana Rutt, Andrea Stewart, Alice Kim Chloe Dominguez, Amaryllis Jarczyk, Yoon Jhon, Dominic Painchaud

In terms of interpreting, when you look at a score of his it's a little bit like a Bach manuscript in the sense that he doesn't go overboard in terms of telling the cellos what to do. He allows us to go in there and interpret it and make it work.

AAJ: You struck a chord when you described "Open Country Joy" as being Beethovenian, because [drummer] Gregg Bendian—who leads a Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute band—believes that not only should the Mahavishnu Orchestra's music be considered as standard repertory but that this music of McLaughlin and company could almost be considered as modern classical music; would you go along with that?

MH: I would. In a way that's what we've done with this project. Once we got in to it, it became a classical experience for us. It felt like chamber music. Of course we had a rhythm section and a groove but the way we were listening and the way we were responding to each other was not that far away from playing in a Brahms piano quartet. John's genius is not just his improvisational skill or his virtuosity; I think there is something classical in his compositional sense. He is a great composer in addition to those other gifts. It felt like a new music project for me which had a classical grounding to it.

AAJ: What is the age range of the members of Uccello?

MH: They're all my current students from McGill so there are a couple of undergrads through to masters students and one had graduated last year; they're from 20, 21 years old to 28.

AAJ: Were these young musicians familiar with any of the material and did you listen to the original versions with them beforehand?

MH: When we first started playing this we just threw ourselves over a cliff and began learning the arrangements. I arranged a residency for us about five hours north of Quebec and we spent a week there. Basically, David [Sanford] threw a bunch of arrangements at us and we began learning notes and rhythms. As we got into it we started looking up a lot of performances of the tunes on YouTube and tried to find a variety of performances: Miles Davis, Mahavishnu [Orchestra], Ornette Coleman—though our version of "W.R.U." is pretty far removed from Ornette's version as it's more of a [saxophonist] John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
sax, alto
-inspired arrangement. We also listened to the albums to try and get it in our ear that way and then we started to make decisions. On some songs we wanted to be as faithful as we could to the original but we were playing cellos and on others we thought maybe the tune would sound better if we went in another direction tempo-wise.

With "Open Country Joy," for example, it's slightly slower than the original and we put a little more of that country, bluegrass feel in the third part. But there were certain limitations; we simply couldn't play fast enough at the beginning. Initially, David [Sanford] wanted it unbelievably fast and we did it about as fast as we could on this instrument [laughs]. So, at first we started without any references to the music, then we were voracious about hearing as much of that music as we possibly could and get to know the style, and then it came to a point where we were on tour where we stopped listening to the originals as we thought, okay, these are our tunes now and we're going to make them our own, and at that point we had to let go.

AAJ: At what point did you decide to bring in a drummer in Matt Wilson and keyboard player Jan Jarszyck?

MH: I thought of a film analogy at the beginning; we are the cartoon and I wanted some real characters, some real human beings to enter this cartoon world. We're in this other world and I wanted some real folk from the jazz world to jam with us and add some improvisation and bring some authenticity to this whole thing [laughs].

John [McLaughlin] was the first one I approached because we were doing his tunes. We spent a lot of time deconstructing the cello; we have this old, beat-up cello which we hit and beat up and treat like a drum. It's really fun to see live, particularly on "W.R.U. because we have these two cellists hitting the shit out of this poor cello. On the CD, I thought that the power of that tune really comes from the rhythm and I wanted that real tension that comes from drums. Matt [Wilson] is adventurous and agreed to do it, so we recorded it in Ornette Coleman's former studio in New York City; we got Ornette Coleman's vibe in there which was cool. I gave him this old beat-up cello and said, just go ahead and do whatever you want; it's not worth fifty bucks.

It was fascinating to watch him because whereas we took silverware and hit the cello all over the place to get different sounds, he was actually more interested in the pitch and started doing different things to it. Having that rock 'n' roll backing was important for the feel, especially in those two tunes, "Meeting of the Spirits" and "W.R.U." It transformed the whole experience and it also gave us an insight when we played "Haitian Flight Song" because we had the experience of playing with a real rhythm section which we could try and emulate.

With the keyboard player Jan Jarszyk, his daughter plays the keyboard solo that closes that tune on the CD. It was her father that played the real keyboards so it was a real family connection. Jan grew up with all that '70s fusion in Poland. He was a big Rhodes player back in the '70s and he was happy to come in. For me it was just really important to have some improv on this album.

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