"The whole idea behind suddenlyLISTEN is to spread the word about improvisation and really teach people how to listen in a different way when they approach this art," says Zokugaku free-jazz improv guitarist Geordie Haley. With Dalhousie music lecturer Tim Crofts and drummer Doug Cameron, Zokugaku is a special project for all three multi-genre professional musicians. Zokugaku finishes up the main series of improv collective suddenlyLISTEN's season with Toronto-based vocalist Tena Palmer for Siren Song at The Bus Stop on Sunday.
The special night of improv jazz will be a "complete and utter alternative to anything you'd hear at the ECMAs, in a good way," says Haley. The art of free improv is the orchestration of music without a set repertoire or conventional song structure. With drums, guitar, piano and a heavy electronic component, Zokugaku explores the harder, wider edges of choral harmonies.
"The whole mandate is to improvise, and for all of us this was an opportunity to really play with electronica," says Haley. When Haley met Crofts about four years ago, he says, "Tim was going wild with sampling, using old-school hands-on synthesizers with knobs and it was like, 'Wow!' Between the two of us, we can make an amazing-sounding orchestra. Once we added Doug and his drum kit, he really grounded the music and gave it such an amazing energy. But free improv can be a disorienting, discombobulating experience for an audience."
Enter Tena Palmer. A world-touring vocalist for several styles of bands, Palmer is coming back to Halifax for the event to add an additional dimension to Zokugaku's intergalactic soundscape explorations.
"The main thing about Tena, no matter what she's doing, is that she always connects with the audience. She is so great for improv," says Haley. "Sometimes people can be intimidated or disinterested because there's not a recognizable tune or beat, but Tena brings people in and welcomes them, she makes the audience more comfortable. She sings beautiful tones and makes crazy sounds that are pretty much from outer space. She's absolutely a real master of the form."
While free improv jazz gives the impression of disconnected disorder, it takes a lot of work, practice and skill to achieve. Zokugaku has spent a few years working together, sometimes at suddenlyLISTEN's Improv Workshops at 1313 Hollis Street every other Monday. Plus, Haley has known Palmer since 1980, finishing music degrees at St.FX. Collaborations like Siren Song require a tangible trust between the musicians, and the collective experience to make it work.
"We all listen together. Once everyone is really listening in the trio and making moves together, there's a telepathy that starts to happen, it's the third or fourth mind," says Haley. "We make group decisions that are not premeditated in any way. We move strictly as the sounds are moving. We'll all shift on a dime: loud, quiet, loud, quiet and everywhere in between. It's very exciting music, it's very challenging. But when Tena is singing, people are really drawn into it."
For these busy music educators, Siren Song is a rare and special chance to flout the rules. For an audience, it's an experience that will bring surprises and connections on new levels.
"Bring your ears, an open mind, and expect the unexpected," says Haley. "Expect to be delighted by the process. Let go of what you think you might hear and come along for the ride."
Siren Song Sunday, March 10, 8pm The Bus Stop Theatre 2203 Gottingen Street $10/$20
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