Matt Haimovitz: Rare Birds

Ian Patterson By

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We started without any references to the music; then we were voracious about hearing as much as we could to get to know the style; then we stopped listening to the originals as we thought, "these are our tunes now, we're going to make them our own."
It's a fairly audacious idea for a cello octet to interpret the music of jazz icons such as bassist Charles Mingus, trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist Ornette Coleman, never mind the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but clearly, as seen on the compelling Meeting of the Spirits, cellist Matt Haimovitz loves a challenge. Challenge is something he's used to, since debuting at the age of 13 as soloist with the Israeli Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. For Haimovitz, one of the biggest challenges he has taken upon himself is to bring the cello to new audiences, and to this end he set off in 2000 on his Bach "Listening-Room" Tour, which brought Bach's cello suites to club audiences across Canada, the US and the UK. Three years later, Haimovitz embarked on a grueling 50-state "Anthem Tour," celebrating the music of American composers, including his interpretation of guitarist Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner."

After two dozen albums, Haimovitz, in close collaboration with arranger/composer David Sanford, has turned his attention to the jazz world, putting his octet Uccello through the paces with the additional collaboration of guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Matt Wilson and keyboardist Jan Jarczyck, who bring their improvisational weight to Sanford's challenging arrangements. With extensive airplay on both classical and college jazz radio stations and a recent Grammy nomination attesting to the crossover appeal of Meeting of the Spirits, Haimovitz continues to break down the traditional barriers which surround both jazz and classical to varying degrees. Whether performing in the world's greatest concert halls, New York's legendary punk/hardcore venue CBGB, or Austin's SXSW festival, Haimovitz's aim is the same—to invite his audience to enter the music without prejudice.

All About Jazz: What was the genesis of this project, Meeting of the Spirits?

Matt Haimovitz: I've been working with [arranger/composer] David Sanford for a couple of years. We met while I was living in western Massachusetts and he currently lives there. My wife, who's a composer, suggested that I check out his music and when I did I came across a piece for cello and piano, "22 Part 1" and it had two 11-tone rows. It is Shoenbergian with a funk groove, a jazz feeling and I hadn't heard anything so sincere in bridging those worlds; it's just very rare. So, I commissioned him for a solo piece and he wrote "7th Avenue Kaddish," a piece inspired by [saxophonist] John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." Then a year later he won the Rome Prize and I heard his big band music. I said: "So you know, I'm not a jazz fan but you've got to get me in there somehow [laughs]. So that's how the concerto for cello and twenty-piece big band happened, Scherzo Grosso. The natural evolution in our collaboration was [when] I asked David if he could turn my cello ensemble into a big band. That's how this recording came about.

He knew of my friendship with John McLaughlin. For years I've been an electric guitar fan, starting with Jimi Hendrix and moving on from there. John McLaughlin was one of my heroes and I've been lucky to be friendly with him these last couple of years and that's how the Mahavishnu [Orchestra] got included in that. Using these tunes on Meeting of the Spirits really came out of three or four years of collaborating with David.

AAJ: Was the participation of McLaughlin on "Open Country Joy" penciled in from the beginning or had David Sanford already chosen the Mahavishnu orchestra tracks and you then thought it would be good to get McLaughlin to play on the tracks?

MH: Actually, David sent me a bunch of compositions which he thought would work well and when we came to narrowing it down he said maybe we could use one of "A Meeting of the Spirits" or "Open Country Joy" and I said: "We've got to have both of these." They were both so good I just didn't want to let one of them go. "Open Country Joy" blew me away when I first got to know it. I felt it was a little bit Beethovenian [laughs] in the sense that it was so unexpected the way it rocks out in the middle and then hearing that kind of country influence. I thought it was a lot of fun. With "Meeting of the Spirits" I couldn't let that guitar solo go, I had to play that [laughs]. It's one of the all-time great electric guitar solos. So, we ended up using both tunes, but I gave David carte blanche.

The first arrangement that he made was [pianist, John Lewis'] "Blues in A Minor" with all the pizzicato and plucking, and honestly, when I first saw that I thought, oh god, this project's not going to work because when I saw that in the middle there's this four-part fugue and you're trying to sustain all those voices with two cellos. It's very hard for us to pluck for so many minutes; we don't have those calluses developed. It was a whole new thing for us. I thought if the rest of the album is going to be reinventing the instruments to that degree then we're not going to make it [laughs]. Fortunately, Dominic [Painchaud] also plays bass and he took on the challenge so I thought if he's going to do it I'll join him and spend a couple of months trying to figure this thing out. But initially I didn't know if we were going to be able to do it.


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