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Jane Bunnett: Embracing Voices


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It was a really difficult project to do because of the logistics, the writing, the fact that the record company was sold, but in the end it was all worth it.
Jane BunnettJane Bunnett, the Toronto soprano saxophonist, flutist and bandleader and her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer have built their careers at the crossroads between Cuban music and jazz. Twice nominated for Grammy Awards and a fixture at the nominations for Canada's Juno Awards, their bands are virtual showcases for the finest musical talent from Canada, the United States and Cuba.

Bunnett has long held an ongoing love affair with the human voice. Embracing Voices (Blue Note, 2008)—one of her most challenging projects to date—features the artistry of Grupo Vocal Desandann, vocalists Kelly Lee Evans and Molly Johnson, poet/rapper Telmary Diaz and some of Canada's finest musicians.

All About Jazz: I am tempted to call this interview, "The Best Laid Plans." Meaning, what started out as a live trio recording turned into Godzilla!

Jane Bunnett: I was thinking about my next record and what I was going to do and I realized that I was exhausted, so I thought it would be important for me to work on my saxophone skills in a trio setting.

AAJ: You and Larry wear a lot of hats—manager, booking agent, travel agent, publicist, chief cook and bottle washer.

JB: A lot of the stuff we do is logistics. I work with Reggie Marshall in Virginia and it is very stressful and time consuming. Also, I was at a bit of a crossroads and asking myself, "How many records have I put out?" And it doesn't seem to mean anything to anybody. I guess I was just weary with the whole thing and I thought it would be a good idea to focus on a record with bass, drums, horn and work on my saxophone. It wasn't like it was going to be a mainstream record, but I thought I would take a break from the Cuban thing.

AAJ: Instead you and your husband, Larry Cramer became involved in one of the most complex projects of your career and at the worst possible time.

JB: It really was the worst possible time. Larry kept saying, "Let's talk about the record," and I just didn't feel like doing it, but every time the film, Spirits of Havana (2001) aired on television I received e-mails from people asking me when I was going to do something with [the Haitian vocal group] Desandann again; when was I going to bring them to Canada; when this, when that? Even people in the States were asking about Desandann. Anyway, the e-mails had an impact on me and I began thinking that perhaps a group of this stature may not be around in a few years. They are extremely unique, they are Cuban but they have this Haitian element and they have been researching the music for many years and resurrecting a lot of music that has disappeared from the Haitian repertoire.

AAJ: The first time I saw them perform live they literally made my hair stand on end.

JB: The first time I heard them sing I had tears running down my face. There was not even a response like, "I am being moved by this music and I am going to cry." They invoked such a physical reaction in me that I was teary and not even aware of the process. I have always been very intrigued with the human voice and wished that I could sing. I guess that and the fact that Desandann was under the radar and here was this great opportunity to work with them and feature them as a strong component of my recording. I don't want to put what I did with Grupo Vocal Desandann on par with what Paul Simon did with Lady Smith Black Mambazo, but that was the general idea. So that's how the record was born; that was the concept I presented to the record company.

Jane BunnettAAJ: Was the recording, Spirituals & Dedications (Justin Time, 2002) a precursor to Embracing Voices?

JB: Yes, for sure.

AAJ: That would be Blue Note records, better known as EMI in Canada.

JB: I was left in a bit of a lurch because I was supposed to get some money to start the project and the record company was sold. Larry and I went to Cuba thinking that we were going to get an advance. In the end, we racked up our Visa bills big time. I guess at that point we could have bailed.

AAJ: Certainly no one would have blamed you.

JB: But something kept saying, "We have to go through it." Cubans are used to disappointment so if I had told them that the project was on hold they would have understood. But we are very fortunate that we have the Banff Center for the Arts. Initially, it was a beautiful old hotel that was set up for travelers. Later the Fine Arts Center was built and dance companies and painters would go there to work on their projects, it was like a retreat. More recently it has become a conference center but it still maintains an art center.

Anyway, they approached me about coming out there and asked if I needed a cabin to work in. I told them that I needed a place to put together a grand scale project. At the time the record company was involved and I was focusing on bringing Desandann here instead of going to Cuba to make the recording, which is what we have always done in the past. The routine was: we would go down to Cuba for a week, come home with the master, mix it, master it and hand it the record company. Then the record company bailed. In the meantime, Banff offered me rooms and food at a discounted rate, so three weeks before the project started they called me for a rooming list. At this point I was really ready to bail.

AAJ: What was Larry doing while all of this was going on?

JB: We were both sitting their in tears, drinking a lot of tequila [laughs], and thinking to ourselves, "What are we going to do?" I usually look to Larry to make the decisions but this time we were both in the same boat. Meanwhile, the airline tickets were on hold at Air Cubana and the record company had not given us an advance, or for that matter, any reassurance that they are going to release the recording. Larry and I just kept staring at each other and saying, "Didn't we all sit around in a boardroom with these *&%$# and didn't they say this, or that?"

I knew we weren't crazy because we both witnessed it. No one had the decency to call us and suggest that we put the project on hold, so we had no idea of what was going on. So the artistic director at Banff, Barry Schiffman called and asked me what was happening and I told him. Lo and behold he offered me free room and board and said, "Just get yourself out here," That was the sign that we should go through with the project despite the fact that the situation was still gloomy, so we booked everything and got ourselves out to Banff.

We got out there and started rehearsing and it was great. It was wonderful for the Cubans because it allowed them to feel like they were artists in the truest sense of the word. They were in an environment where they sitting in the same room as concert pianists from Spain, classical guitarists from Colombia and they were meeting people that were on the world stage. It really made them feel special.

AAJ: How did vocalists Kelly Lee Evans and Telmary Diaz become involved with the project?

Jane BunnettJB: For the last five years I have been the artistic director for a show called "Global Divas," which is a fundraiser for St. Stevens Community House. It's like a United Appeal, it outreaches to about 45,000 people in the downtown metropolitan core here in Toronto. It services new refugees, day care, seniors and provides English classes for new immigrants. I have been involved with the project for five years and, working with artists from the World Music scene, that's what has kept me connected to working with some of the great vocalists out there.

Kelly Lee worked with "Global Divas," she is a fascinating lady; she has three kids and a ton of energy. Telmary Diaz lives in Toronto and I have been working with her for some time. There were other artists that I wanted to feature on the recording but I ran out of money and some of the managers were pains in the asses so I just said the heck with it.

AAJ: Did the record company ever come through?

JB: They came through with a little bit of money and 700 free CDs.

AAJ: So basically you and Larry financed the recording out-of-pocket.

JB: At the end of the day I didn't want to be in one of those situations where I end up saying to myself, "I wish I had done it." I am very proud of this recording. We are planning a tour for April 2009 and I hope to perform close to the U.S. border to pick up anyone from the States who might want to hear Desandann.

AAJ: The project is different from anything that you and Larry have done before. Give me a brief overview of the repertoire.

JB: "Sway" was inspired by the great tenor player, Billy Harper, and one of the records that he did Capra Black (Strata East, 1973). He's a fascinating artist in the Coltrane vein. He did this beautiful record with voices and I just loved it so much that I wrote a tune with Billy in mind. It has the vibe of a spiritual, hymn. I wrote "Kaleidoscope" a few years ago, when I was living in Paris. I don't know if you can hear it or not, but it's a reflection on some of the foreign films of the '60s.

"Wongolo" was written in the '80s. Essentially, it's a conversation between two Haitians. A Haitian in Haiti is writing to a Haitian in another country and asking, "When are you going to come back to your country? Your country needs you." It's kind of like a farewell song that says, "Come back, we need you." "Serafina" was written for a little girl. I wrote the tune over a year ago at our cabin in the woods. We have a gazebo by the lake and I just sat down and wrote "I Hear Voices." "Chenen Ren" is a protest song that talks about slavery and how it still exists even today. I am not exactly sure about the history of the tune "Pancho Quinto," I heard Pancho do it and we redid it, so I don't know if it's a traditional song or not. I asked Telmary Diaz to write about Pancho and she came up with the spoken word on that. I thought she did a beautiful job.

"Egberto" was written by Don Thompson and is dedicated to Egberto Gismonti, who is quite a character. "A Nu Danse" is a piece that was written as part of a workshop. We struggled with that piece in the studio because the feel wasn't quite right. Larry came up with the idea of setting up the piece by ad-libing, hand clapping, etc. "The Only One" was written for Sheila Jordan. I thought a lot about Sheila because she is a real (s)hero of mine in jazz. I thought a lot about her too because, as I mentioned, about a year-and-a-half ago I was thinking about quitting music and I had a conversation with her, she was always positive and she is a real jazz survivor. I had hoped that she would write the lyrics so I sent the music to her and called her a couple of times and she told me that she had not gotten around to writing anything. In the end she just said, "If you wrote the piece for me, why don't you write the lyrics?" [Laughs] Then I spoke to Kelly Lee Evans and she wrote those great lyrics.

AAJ: Now that the recording has been completed and you have had a chance to reflect on the experience with some measure of objectivity, how do you feel about the finished project?

Jane BunnettJB: [Laughs] What just happened? But seriously, I feel really good about it. It was a really difficult project to do because of the logistics, the writing, the fact that the record company was sold, but in the end it was all worth it.

AAJ: If the record sales do not meet your expectations you might want to consider creating a reality show! Before we close, let's give the band members a round of applause.

JB: Yes, by all means—Grupo Vocal Desandann; (pianist) David Virelles; (vibraphonist) Don Thompson; (bassist) Yunior Terry; (bata and percussion) Jorge Torres; (drummer) Frank Durand; (guitarist) Pablosky Rosales; (viola) Barry Schiffman; (vocalists and/or spoken word) Kelly Lee Evans, Molly Johnson, Telmary Diaz; (Coro); everyone and anyone who was hanging around the studio.

AAJ: Perhaps we should also mention that Larry produced the recording. What's next for Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer?

JB: Well, the recording was just released in Canada, Europe and Japan. Also, I am going to Europe as part of pianist Elio Villafranca's group.

Selected Discography

Jane Bunnett, Embracing Voices (Blue Note, 2008)
Jane Bunnett, Radio Guantanamo: Guantanamo Blues Project Vol. 1 (Blue Note, 2006)
Jane Bunnett, Red Dragonfly (Narada, 2005)
Jane Bunnett, Cuban Oddyssey (Blue Note, 2003)
Jane Bunnett/Stanley Cowell/Dewey Redman, Spirituals & Dedications (Blue Note, 2003)
Jane Bunnett, Alma De Santiago (Blue Note, 2001)
Jane Bunnett, Ritmo + Soul (Blue Note, 2000)
Jane Bunnett, Chamalongo (Blue Note, 2001)

Photo Credits
Jane Bunnett (saxophone): Rad Pix
Portrait: Courtesy of Jane Bunett

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