For those of us who are lucky enough to really love music, it can become a large part of what connects us to our particular time and place. I am lucky to live in Toronto during this time because this city is home to wonderful improvisers such as Brodie West.
When talking to West, it is no wonder that his presence here makes some of us feel more grounded, more defined. His positive air is apparent in his art, as well as in his every word. West has been playing the saxophone for 26 years. In that time, he has worked with musicians from Ethiopia and Amsterdam to this city of ours. Lately, he has been playing with The Ryan Driver Quintet, Terrie Ex, and many more. He showcases his own compositions with his band Eucalyptus and recently he put out a solo saxophone recording on Healing Power Records.
The Varsity: In Eucalyptus, you work with great improvisers and there always seems to be a lot of room for them within your pieces. How do you account for that when you are composing?
Brodie West: My compositions are organized on some levels, but the framework of them allows for a lot of room, I hope. I guess the challenge is communication — for everyone to be able to make sense of the materials of a composition. The pieces are not overly intricate. People don’t have to work too hard to find all the details so they can bring their own details into it. My style of writing is really melody and rhythm. There’s a big space in between for people to do a lot of their own thing.
TV: What does a good composition feel like for you?
BW: When it’s realized by the musicians people will open up to it. The players will really find a way to revel in it. To be able to just express themselves, feel the freedom, and to be able to really listen to it.
Maybe the perfect composition is one that the players can hear themselves in. Everything with music is just the practice of listening. Listening is the most essential quality. That’s why people with limited technical skill are still able to make the right choices with what they’ve got because they can hear what’s going on and they can feel it.
All the musicians in the band are good at doing that. I’m trying to create a really minimal structure for them to play. Something they could almost learn by ear with room for exploration.
TV: What’s the difference in the way you compose for your solo stuff versus composing for Eucalyptus?
BW: In Eucalyptus, it’s not all about what’s on the paper, it’s about communicating the ideas that are there and what it is that I’m dreaming about. It’s really hard to communicate the subtleties. That skill is the hardest thing for me, probably for my whole life, to try to do. The more you work with the same people, the more you have this catalogue of understanding to refer to.
We’re not working in a tradition that’s been well-established. I’m drawing from all different backgrounds so nothing is really a given as far as putting a piece in front of people and assuming that they’re all going to interpret it from a certain vantage point. If you can try not to assume anything, then you can really experiment.
TV: What about when you compose your solo stuff? Do you allow for space in the same way?
BW: I find playing solo sax is all about time. I need time to get into it. It’s kind of about developing a language and having it at your fingertips. The solo stuff has to do with a kind of momentum. Not working on having a pulse but feeling intuition. It’s freeing in a way that I really enjoy — this thing about the mind wandering and the freedom to just ramble in different ways.
It’s also about silence and what is left after you have made a statement. As soon as you stop in any moment there’s this sort of tension. I’m always using that, and that is creating the momentum too. I’m not circular breathing which is a standard thing to do with solo wind instrument playing. I’m allowing that breath. I think that draws people in. The quality of the recording too is quite close.
TV: Is there some kind of code of conduct that underpins your practice?
BW: At the risk of sounding naive, my first favourite musician was Charlie Haden, and he talked a lot about being honest. I don’t want to lie about anything. I don’t want to be clever about lying. I don’t even want to figure out a tricky way to be able to get at something. Music is a way to really be honest. A lot of people make these choices that are not very honest for themselves. It’s just survival, but it’s unfortunate that sometimes people get into this whole zone of misery. Charlie Haden’s words always stuck in my mind because when I hear his music it sounds like that and it takes courage to do that. He’s made a lot of great choices because he’s got that strength.
I think from the Toronto community the strongest thing that I can associate myself with, and feel that I am a part of, is this freedom to experiment across all different genres. It’s such a struggle living here and there aren’t many real institutions or anchors so everything is really fluid. Musicians are able to do things in a different way as far as decisions they make. There’s no professional scene here for improvisers.
In Amsterdam, for example, there’s this million dollar club for improvisers and when people play there they get paid really well and they live as professionals. Here no one is a professional so no one has anything to protect in that sense. Everyone is willing to take a chance and do different stuff. Every moment feels really open and full of potential for things to happen.
Eucalyptus will be releasing a new record in February during their month long Sunday residency at Hirut Cafe and Restaurant (2050 Danforth St).