Interview: Harley Card, “The Greatest Invention”

Harley Card - Greatest Invention

The more I listen to jazz, the more deeply appreciative I become both of jazz musicians’ monster skills and of their ability to fuse seamlessly into a group that seems to live and breathe as one, to the point that composition and improvisation become indecipherable from one another.  This thought has been especially foremost in my mind as I’ve listened to Harley Card’s latest album, “The Greatest Invention,” a collection of eleven compositions for his quintet.

Card, a guitarist and composer, plays here with David French (saxophone), Matt Newton (piano), Jon Maharaj (basses), and Ethan Ardelli (drums), all of whom are incredibly gifted and busy musicians in the Toronto music scene in their own right.  Card is a generous composer, providing space for each musician to shine thoroughly on this project.

As you might imagine, there are pieces of varying tempos and character on this terrific album.  I find myself drawn to a few of the quieter, more reflective pieces; for example, “Shadows of Shea Pines” (which includes acoustic guitar, a delightful shift from the electric guitar so present – and excellent! – on many of the other compositions) is a truly lovely composition that really captures the essence of being out in nature.  “Ben’s Sanctuary,” inspired by (as you’ll see below) a bird sanctuary, also paints a picture aurally of precisely that – birds liberated to roam safely and freely, and to be themselves.  “Highlights,” the penultimate track on the album, is the more up-tempo piece that especially caught my ear – written, so the notes say, to explore improvisation in 5/4 time.  (If you think you’ve never heard anything else in this meter, go find a copy of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”)  Unlike its more famous counterpart, “Highlights” to me sounds like a more challenging improvisation in that meter, achieved wonderfully well.

Harley Card is clearly a musician who is continuing to explore his considerable musical and compositional gifts, and he’s lucky that he’s found colleagues who so wonderfully capture his musical vision.  This is one of those rare and wonderful albums that is enjoyable on first listen but then reveals new surprises and insights on repeated listens.  (Hint to Harley – this album would sound wondrous on vinyl; if that ever happens let me know!)

We’re thrilled that Harley took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his album.

It’s been nearly five years since your last album, and in fact this project was recorded about two years before actually being released; is there any particular reason (other than being a terrifically busy musician!) for the delay?

I like to take time to produce a record because I think it encourages a fresh perspective on the work as you move through the various stages. Each step in the process calls upon a different skill set, from playing the music with the band initially, all the way to mastering it and working with the designer to find complimentary images for the music . It’s a tiered approach really, where you’re listening to takes, mixing and everything, while simultaneously writing new music and exploring other projects. It also takes a while to raise the funding necessary sometimes. Being busy plays in to it, sure. The business of everyday life. But I don’t focus on the fact that it’s taken me this long to release the three albums I’ve made as a leader. Rather, I feel content in the fact that I completed each project with the best of my ability at the time, and it took as long as was necessary.

I’ve often wondered this about jazz compositions: how does the translation process work from the composition you write, to the piece that ultimately ends up on record (with improvisations and contributions from your ensemble)?  Classical pieces, and even pop songs to a certain extent, are fairly scripted, but I don’t think that’s the case for jazz?

The script still exists. It’s provided by a group who have a lot of trust in each other, a strong musical relationship, and the material. In jazz, there’s always the component that the improvising varies from one performance to the next, which is very thrilling. In terms of my group and my music, I feel there’s a pretty nuanced thing happening now in terms of how everybody’s musical influence affects my writing process. I feel that I’m negotiating between that and my overall vision for what I’m trying to do, the trajectory of my own ideas.

When we play the music, It’s all very democratic and everybody has a lot of say in how we shape the arrangements and perform. It varies from piece to piece, but generally speaking, if I’ve brought something to the band to play, I’ve toiled over it pretty thoroughly and I’m determined to get it in the book in one way or another. I however still try to remain open to everybody else’s take on it and the ideas they have. It’s often definitely a case of; ‘five heads are better than one’. Also, It’s worth noting that the process itself is more important than the result, which is sort of paradoxical. The process of growing as a writer, and of collaborating with great musicians is the work itself, and the performance, weather live or in the studio is a bi-product of that process.

“Ben’s Sanctuary” is such an intriguing track… it opens with what sounds like Tibetan singing bowls and prepared piano (I realize that may not be what’s actually being played but that’s the sound I get), and transitions into a lovely, reflective tune with a lot of unison lines between instruments.  I’m curious about what inspired this particular piece, and how it’s shaped instrumentally?

I wrote Ben’s Sanctuary with drummer and songwriter, Dave Clark. Dave and I have collaborated on several songs and compositions for various projects of both of ours. Writing sessions with Dave are real fun, we usually start by drinking tea in his kitchen and shooting the shit. That day we were talking about Toronto’s beautiful High Park. Dave was telling me to go check out the bird sanctuary there, where a very dedicated and eccentric elderly man cares for the birds eight months a year. His name is Ben.

The intro was based on Ethan’s cymbal work in the studio. Ethan had a cymbal suspended on a string and he was moving it closer and further away from the microphones as they sustained, creating a swelling effect. There’s some piano and guitar scrapings too which is what you’re hearing as the prepared element. After that, recording engineer David Hermiston and I had some fun with it in post production to create the musical moment you hear. The tune became a feature for our pianist; Matt Newton. Matt leads the group so dynamically on this piece each time we play it. Piano introduces the main theme, then it’s orchestrated for saxophone and guitar, and there’s a development section with a melody played on the bass.

I noticed that one of the reviewers of this album wished you’d included a vocalist.  Is that something you’d ever consider?

I’ve worked with vocalists quite extensively. Most notably; Felicity Williams and I co-lead a project called Hobson’s choice along with Rebecca Hennessy on trumpet, and Michael Davidson on vibraphone. Hobson’s choice has released four recordings and toured in Canada a few times. I’ve also always been a singer myself actually, and started my career in Ottawa singing in bands and doing solo gigs. Throughout my career as a guitarist, I’ve always returned to the singer songwriter thing. It comes very naturally because my dad is a singer songwriter and the Cards always got together and played folk music when I was growing up. I’ve kept up with it over the years pretty well and that side of my music resurfaces every so often. I’ve been enjoying writing songs with words quite a lot lately.  So yeah, I love working with singers, I listen to them all the time, and I would definitely include vocals in my group down the line in some capacity.

You spent last summer studying with master jazz guitarist Peter Bernstein – can you tell us a little about him, and about that experience?

Peter is great. A real gentleman. It was a tremendous experience to study with him,  to get to know him a bit, and witness his connection to the music community in New York first hand. He’s a very open minded musician and in addition to the strong ties he has with his peers and the older masters like Jimmy Cobb and Harold Mabern, he also plays with the younger generation of musicians and is very supportive of what they’re all doing. It’s very inspiring. It was valuable to me to engage in a focused period of study again, along with the reflection and practicing that it inspires. It’s fueled a lot of momentum for me in returning to my work in Canada.

If folks want to hear this material live, are there opportunities for that coming up?

I’ve recently debuted a new project called Harley Card Sunset Ensemble, which is basically an octet version of my regular quintet, with the addition of Alexander Brown on trumpet, Karl Silviera on trombone, and Ted Crosby on bass clarinet. It’s been quite a thrill to collaborate with David French (the saxophonist from my quintet and Sunset Ensemble); on the arrangements. We have a special show coming up on March 1st presented by The Toronto Jazz Festival. It’s on Thursday March 1st at 7pm, at Lula Lounge in Toronto. Folks can also always check out my calendar on my website for dates, there’s a bunch of fun stuff on the horizon.

~ L

Visit Harley Card’s website.

Preview and buy “The Greatest Invention” on Bandcamp.

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