Alice Groves: a flowing lateral arabesque
Interview with Ottawa Jazz Scene.ca
Prior to Concert at Canada's National Arts Centre
Alice Groves, in the hills above Cannes, France (photo provided by artist)
The music of Ottawa singer-songwriter Alice Groves reflects many influences, including Latin and mainstream jazz .
She will be joining with a number of well-known Ottawa jazz musicians for a concert at the NAC Fourth Stage on Thursday, November 3. She has donated a pair of tickets to be won by an OttawaJazzScene.ca subscriber; see here for details (deadline noon Tuesday).
OttawaJazzScene.ca Editor Alayne McGregor asked Alice about her jazz background, how she met the musicians she's playing with, and what the audience can expect to hear on Thursday, and she responded by email. This is a slightly edited version of her answers:
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me about the music you'll be playing at your concert. What kind of jazz influences are in it? What would a jazz audience like about it?
Alice Groves: The music we’ll be playing at the concert flows from one genre to another – in a genre-inclusive “lateral arabesque”. I do not feel the need to be genre-specific in my choices, as to do so would be to exclude too much of the world’s music about which I feel passionate. Most people think of me as a jazz singer; I prefer to think of myself simply as a singer.
While I do sing jazz, I absolutely embrace songs which do not necessarily fall within the confines of the jazz genre. And therein lies the ‘raison d’etre’ of my repertoire choices. For me “The song’s the Thing!” And if I love the song, I’ll follow the genre which most suits the song, and not coerce the song to fit a genre. For instance, we will be performing the evocative “Across the Universe of Time” (British songwriter, Sarah Class) It is hauntingly but loosely Celtic-folk. This song would simply not work if interpreted in the jazz idiom.
Having said that, I am in love with jazz standards such as “Speak Low”, among others which we’ll be doing at the Fourth Stage, along with Brazilian standards “Agua de Berber”, “Mas Que Nada”, and “Manha de Carnaval”. Audiences absolutely love Brazilian Bossa Nova and, what I call Bossa Jazz. They just can’t get enough of it. I worked for a decade in a Latin American quartet and audiences lit up at the very thought of Bossa Jazz.
I could go on about the repertoire, but then where would the mystery be? We need to keep a few things ‘classified’, wouldn’t you agree!
OJS: How did you meet the musicians you're playing with? You describe them as your 'motley crew': tell me how that description came about.
AG: Ah! The musicians! My ‘Motley Crew’! Yes, indeed! I began by looking for musicians who played instruments akin to the instrumentation on my fifth album Soft Illusions and on the sixth album which I am in the process of completing.
I first met Art Lawless several years ago when he was playing at a little jazz club at the corner of Besserer and Dalhousie with my brother Steve. His talent was so impressive that I invited him to accompany me at NAC’s Studio as part of an octet I was putting together for the event. He accepted. And, here he is, back again for another gig with me, I am happy to say. It doesn’t get any better than Art Lawless.
Bassist Neil Sealy I have known for many years and we played the 4th Stage together about seven years ago. His “chill” style and reliable demeanor are so comfortable to work with.
Now the ‘road’ takes several unpredictable turns. Doug Slone and I know each other socially; and while we were sitting in one night at a local club, I asked him to play a song I had just re-discovered. Neither of us had ever performed it, and we did it with the simplicity of children building a sand castle. The audience was wild for it. And then and there I asked Doug to join me at the Fourth Stage. This was last winter. The song was “Wild is the Wind” which is on my sixth album to be released early in the new year.
Then there is Laura Nerenberg. Laura and I had both taught at De La Salle (aka the French Canterbury – school for the performing arts). BUT, at different times. And I had never met her. But her name held some intrigue for me. And although I had never even heard her play, I just knew from the bits of echoes and tidbits of information about her, that she would be an amazing violinist. Call it instinct.
I hired her in an e-mail before ever meeting her. A little wild, I suppose, but then what is life without the occasional ‘walk on the wild side’!
Now, I knew I needed a really interesting percussionist rather than a standard drummer as such. So I started trooping around to anything and everything in search of this amazing percussionist. Late night jams in seedy bars, you name it - no holds barred! I needed a percussionist who wasn’t afraid to experiment with a variety of instruments and sounds. But this was an elusive search, and I was coming up with nada. During this search for the right percussionist, however, I did encounter Evandro Gracelli at the BDT. It was serendipity. I was there to see the percussionist as I had heard he played the berimbau. But I and my friends were so impressed with Evandro that, then and there, I asked him to play the Fourth Stage. He was into it. And I am glad to say, this was a fortuitous turn of events. Sadly for Ottawa, he returns to Brazil in early December. But for this moment, he is a member of the ‘motley crew’. But I was still short of a percussionist. What to do?
This question fell coincidentally upon the ears of Fourth Stage director Peter Kealey who, without hesitation, recommended Alvaro de Minaya. We met, and I knew he was the one to play percussion.
So, ‘Motley Crew’ because most of these musicians had not worked together - or even knew each other much /or at all. I invited them to play one by one because of their individual talents and great attitudes and personalities. They certainly did not come as a ‘package’ deal. It was one by one! Yep. The ‘Motley Crew’!
OJS: Can you describe how each of your musicians will contribute to the concert?
AG: Each of these aforementioned musicians will contribute to the concert with their felicitous understanding and grasping of the quite eclectic repertoire and of my singing style and interpretation of the songs therein – and, of course, with their accomplished playing in beautiful harmony with one another. They’re all real charmers too! Audience will love ‘em!
OJS: Besides your own originals, you'll be interpreting songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sarah Class, Cirque de Soleil ("Ka"), and Leonard Cohen. How are all these songs connected? How do they fit into the folk/world/Latin jazz genre-melding that you mention on your website?
AG: Well, the songs in the repertoire don’t “FIT” into the folk/world/Latin jazz genre-melding” mentioned on my website. Rather, they ARE exactly that. For instance, one of the songs we’ll be doing (from a Cirque de Soleil production), entitled “If I Could Reach Your Heart” and which I covered on my album Soft Illusions, is essentially a folk rhythmed tune. It can easily be classed in the “world” category with its inclusion ‘Kiswahili’ lyrics to interpret its theme of world peace and love. Added to these factors is the evocative far-reaching instrumentation. In my own song-writing, this universality of elements, of stretching limits, is where I wish to continue to go.
And re Jobim’s songs, who can, with veracity and/or authenticity, label them? Yes, he is known for Bossa Nova. But that term inadequately describes Jobim. While his tunes are always recognizable, they are certainly not all entirely genre-specific. I love that he was essentially a poet. And yes, a musician. But he wrote with a kind of freedom rarely experienced in the world of music, of lyricism and composition. His sound remains entirely unique. Any labels we attach to it are limiting.
And so I write and cover songs which are often ‘outside the box’. The labels are there only for the convenience of anyone who feels the need to use them. Not to say the labels aren’t helpful. But I think one need to use labels very loosely so that they do not constrict the beauty of the song.
OJS: How were you introduced to jazz? What attracted you to it? Was there a family connection?
AG: My grandfather took a boat from England to play music at the Russell Ontario brickyard decades ago. I was too small to remember him playing, but some kind of jazz or other was going on. Then, my parents both sang amazingly well, though not professionally. And the jazz tunes flowed in and out of our house.
But the BIG influence for me was my brother Steve Groves – especially when he was studying at Berklee. He passed on a lot of what he was discovering and a lot of what he was hearing. John Coltrane, for instance. He had me running out to buy Coltrane albums. And it was all a new adventure for me. Listening to Coltrane’s Ascension brought about my writing of an early poem which I also titled “Ascension” and dedicated it to John Coltrane. It was published in my first book of poetry Babylon and Other Dreams. Steve was also an emerging aficionado of Miles Davis which I also quickly became. His inimitable Sketches of Spain remains an all-time high for me. Steve, for me, is Mr. Jazz. And I owe him that aspect of my musical direction.
And I still remember the night – well, morning – it was the wee hours of – Steve called from New York during the twelve years he lived there after graduating from Berklee – to tell me that while he was hanging out in the Village Vanguard around 2 a.m., Miles Davis walked in. Steve was sitting there with his inseparable companion, his guitar, and Davis apparently asked him if he knew how to play it - to whit Steve pulled it out of the case and started to strum - and, horn in hand, Davis started to play along. The closest I ever got to Davis was NAC Southam Hall.
OJS: Who are your favourite jazz artists? How have you been influenced by them? Other musical influences?
AG: Freddie Hubbard is high on the list of my favourite jazz artists and “Moment to Moment” is possibly my favourite jazz tune as played by Hubbard. Of course, there are so many more jazz artists I esteem: Bill Evans, Coltrane, Davis,…..
Antonio Carlos Jobim remains the greatest jazz ‘thinker’ for me. Because I believe that Jazz is a State of Mind, a way of being. I am reluctant to label it simply as a genre. As for other musical influences, I am a big fan of Michel Legrand, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Joaquin Roderigo, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy,…and so many more.